Repost: The bitter truth about professional standards in pottery (and art)

(From April of last year)

“Talk about equality gets off on the wrong foot if we start from the assumption that it expresses an immediate moral demand to treat everyone the same. Of course, there are thousands of legitimate reasons why people may treat different individuals differently. What egalitarianism objects to are social hierarchies that unjustly put different people into superior and inferior positions.” Elizabeth Anderson, NY Times, “What’s wrong with inequality?

So, Tony Clennell opened a can of worms the other day, and its a can I am well versed with opening myself. On facebook, at least, Tony whips up controversy like few potters I know. He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind and stand by his opinion. And I really do understand where he’s coming from. I have the same sort of academic training, the same ambitions as a teacher, the same high opinion of craftsmanship, many of the same aesthetic preferences, and generally think his pots are among the tops out there. How could I not agree with him on some level?

What Tony says is this:

“I make no apologies for my opinion about making pots in meat trays for sale. I think it is great to introduce students to clay by means of meat trays, dollies and embossed wall paper or whatever texture available. Perfect intro for beginners. Whatever gets them hooked but then move them on.

I have also had the privilege to have taught at a school that encourages critical dialogue about ceramic art. If a student brought a pot made in a meat tray to a critique students would pay admission to see the horror on 6 faculties faces. My best students have collections of other potters work. They have libraries full to bulging with books on their profession. They can name who made what pot from 50 paces. They attend gallery openings, shows and attend workshops.  They understand and respect the profession. They have not paid 3 years tuition to be told everything they make is “sooooooo pretty.”

A few posts back I wrote what might have been had Steve Jobs been a potter. He was wise in all sorts of ways, but one thing his mind keenly perceived was that there are things which appeal to the ‘pros’ in the field/market, and different things which appeal to less well educated ‘consumers’. When Jobs was talking about computers he was not talking about the difference between a ‘good’ computer and a ‘bad’ one, simply the difference between ones that catered to limited needs and ones that had all the bells and whistles. The souped-up version. The consumer model isn’t made poorly. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with it. Only, its not what you will be looking for if you desire the ‘pro’ specs, and greater capacity, sophistication.

What we are talking about in pottery is that the ‘pro’ model, the souped up version, is simply one that has greater aesthetic capacity. THAT’S the difference. If a bowl carries food, a cup transports liquid, then it was made with all the competence needed to qualify as a legitimate sellable product. And consumers are justified in choosing them. The pared down version that Tony talked about, slab molded meat tray platters, are not lesser versions, if what we are really talking about is a functional pot. Like the ‘consumer’ computer that Apple began making, it does the job, serves the purpose, and fulfills the need that exists for such a product. And it simply does it in such a modest way that it might never appeal to the ‘pros’. On the merits of function alone, a slab built plate has what it takes. So what exactly sticks in the craw of pros like Tony?

Maybe the concern is that this sets the bar incredibly low. Its the perception of catering to mediocrity. Two week beginners can plunk down a lump of clay, roughly center it, stick their thumb somewhere near the middle, dig down, hollow it out, squeeze the walls approximately vertical, and end up with a form that once fired will hold liquid and occasionally not cut the lips of the person doing the drinking.

The question is, why should we expect more? Why are even walls and consistency better than uneven and inconsistent walls? Why is a purely functional simple shape with no aesthetic nuance a downgrade over the same functional form but with nuance? In other words, what is the point of sophistication?

When Tony says that his students look at other potters’ work, can name many contemporary artists, and even collect some of their work, he is explaining the path one takes toward sophistication, toward reaping the benefits of a wider exposure, improved craftsmanship, nurturing aesthetic quality, and moving beyond the limited standards of the ‘consumer’. This is exactly the path I hope that every student of mine will take. Its what I want for them, and its what I want them to want for themselves.

But how do we make that case? How do you praise sophistication without at the same time pooh-poohing the lack there of? How do we advocate for sophistication (our brand of it) without coming off as a fascist pig? When does belief turn from conviction to arrogance?

Pretend we were eating a meal, say a plate of spaghetti. Say we were digging in and enjoying the meal when the waiter shows up and offers some fresh ground pepper and some grated Parmesan. We decide to take a chance and add a bit of each. Now its possible that some people won’t notice the difference. Perhaps their sense of taste is limited in some way. Or obstructed. And its possible that some other folks will think “That’s too much pepper!” or “That cheese tastes weird!” and conclude that they made a mistake going for the extra. But there are also folks who get the cheese and pepper and decide that the meal now tastes that much better. Voila!

And it is this difference that we are counting on when we try to show students what we find interesting about the world. Instructors have the job of taking students who like what they like, often with good and justifiable reasons, and showing them more, of showing them the wider world. If an artist is like the chef preparing the meal, the instructor is the waiter serving it up, explaining the daily special, and describing what ingredients the sauce is made with. “Here, try some more pepper.”


So its not that our lightly seasoned bowls of pasta are deficient in some way and its not that beginner pots have failed. Its simply that they are not on the same page with other versions, as it were. When you get folks to see what a meal tastes like with just the right amount of pepper and some cheese, you are getting them to see the world differently, to no longer be satisfied with what they formerly thought of as ‘good enough’ and even ‘perfectly alright’. This dissatisfaction is what widens the gap between ‘pros’ and ‘consumers’, professionals and beginners.

Think about that for a second.

Its simply hard to say that dissatisfaction is the ‘right’ or only way to approach things. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with that plate of pasta before we learned that more pepper and some cheese made this difference. Our preferences have changed, but history did not change with it. Rather, what has really changed is the person doing the judging, the preferring being. We are now in a position to see the details differently. Its only from where we now are standing that our old opinions look the worse….

If you are in school or are actively encouraging your own growth its hard not to see that change as ‘progress’. We often think it means that having given up more limited tastes for more sophisticated ones we are making forward motion in a continuum of quality, replacing poorer for better. That’s the privilege of our own self confidence. But I’d hesitate to make it an objective claim, in all cases. And its not that we can’t agree that, yes, there is such a thing as improving. It only means that we can and do agree what it means and looks like to be “improving”.

It can happen in several ways: We have the same or approximately similar values; The standards we appeal to are roughly in the same place with the same messages which we interpret similarly. And when other like minded individuals cast their vote alongside us itsbecause we agree that things look to be so confirmed. This simply happens often enough that its not hard to imagine having successfully appealed to some objective authority.

But beware the seduction! The truth is that many folks have trained the same way for many years; studying the same examples; guided by the same influences, backgrounds, and experiences; agreeing to the same standards; appealing to the same ideals; and have simply come to look at this progress as a natural sort of evolution. Because for so many of us “A leads to B leads to C”, and so forth, convention and tradition seem to fully describe the arc of reality.

So things like progress can seem fairly self evident if you know what to look for. Every professional was once a beginner, and that genesis seems to contain the seeds of its fulfillment. How could a professional not believe that she had made progress from her formative roots? We have learned to be ‘better’, and this is what defines us. Its the idea that quality itself is necessarily hierarchical, and that it is THIS which we are teaching our students. “To be a professional with professional standards means exactly this”, we say. And its simply better than that which ‘fails’ to live up to those qualities, or so the argument goes.

But if you notice, something was lost in the shuffle. The magician waved his hand, and while we were gawking at the trombone he just pulled from his nostrils, the real switch happened, the thing we missed.

The flip side of shying away from arrogance is not wanting to champion mediocrity. The difficulty is attempting to do both at once, avoiding the two perilous extremes, arrogant elitism and indifferent relativity, to find the equilibrium at the center. But why is this such a hard task for the arts?

We like to imagine that a professional potter or other artist is something like a professional engineer or dentist. To build a bridge over a wide river you should get someone with the right qualifications. And to do root canal work on one of your molars you find someone with a diploma and an office with a reclining chair and one of those suction tubes. THEREFOR, we like to say that when buying pottery folks should get work from only ‘the professionals’, the ones who have demonstrated their qualifications, jumped through the right hoops, have the right sort of implements and accessories in their studios, don’t use blue glazes, etc…. This is the picture we have for what ‘being professional’ and therefor ‘professional quality’ is supposed to mean.

Where the comparison breaks down is that, in point of fact, those beginners crudely pushing lumps of clay DO make serviceable cups and bowls and plates and spoon rests and vases and toothbrush holders and loose change receptacles and bongs and flower pots and pencil holders and ashtrays and gravy boats and pitchers and sake bottles and yarn bowls and oil lamps and so on and so forth. There’s no sense in which beginners get them wrongin the way that beginning dentists would get dentistry wrong or novice engineers get bridge designs wrong. For other disciplines there may be more than a single way of doing something ‘right’, but in clay and most art you’d be hard pressed to say even beginners were doing it ‘wrong’. “Well… it looks like a bowl:) Maybe you can eat cereal out of it!”

What I’m suggesting, and what I’ve suggested many times before, is that ‘getting it right’ is a sometimes specific move in a specific game, and often we give professional potters too much credit for the ‘right way of doing things’. Quality turns out to be much more eclectic than that, in the arts at least.

Here’s what I mean: Mistakes in well defined games are easily identifiable because the rules draw them up for us and our agreement is implicit in the way we play. But take pottery, or any art really. What is the ‘right way of making a bowl? If it holds food is that enough? Isn’t the aesthetic and overall craftworthiness to a large extent subjective? When I say “That handle sucks!” what standard am I addressing? What if the point of the pot wasn’t even anything related to the handle, but maybe how well it was decorated with pretty flowers and stars? How thick are the walls supposed to be? Is a trade-off in clunkiness actually a functional advantage in insulation? Who is in the right position to determine that?

These different perspectives show how fractured our ideals are rather than our unanimity or objectivity. And that seems like an important truth.

As Ashley Morrow commented on Tony’s blog, “I have seen customers line up mugs and place a ruler on top. If any are too short or too tall by a fraction of an inch, they will not buy them. Then there are the ones that come armed with paint chips and fabric swatches. So long as the glaze matches their sofa, they will buy it.” Who’s to say they are not entitled to those requirements? And who’s to say the potter giving them precisely that is wrong to do so? Steve Jobs knew it, and maybe he’s not so alone anymore in recognizing ‘consumer’ needs.

My own personal pet peeve is handles made as an afterthought and with no real attention to detail, no sophistication. I also turn my nose up at forms that are merely a surface for decoration to exist on. I prefer handles that show some nuance and forms that are interesting enough to stand on their own. I like the marks of process (mostly) and details that show the maker was thinking. I am bored by pots so subtle as to be simple or so simple as to be bland. I’m less drawn to garishness than austerity and I’m more a fan of angular lines than bulbous shapes.

Is that the ‘right’ way to make pots? Obviously not! And it turns out not even for me all of the time. I see my chauvinism and I challenge it regularly. Its my job to do so, both as an artist and a teacher. The world is too full of exciting diversity not to have eclectic tastes and motivations.

The key, as I see it, is not to be such fascists about our preferences, calling work we disagree with ‘bad’ or having ‘made mistakes’. Its more like we are playing different gamesfrom one another, and even though all bowls may look bowlishly alike, the truth is they are not all aiming at the same things, even as far as specific function goes, much less aesthetically or craftsmanly. A person playing Go Fish isn’t doing it wrong by not declaring trump or what the wild cards are. Just because beginning potters look like they are playing a remedial game we should not expect that they are playing the wrong game or an inferior one.

(The magician slows down so you can see all the movement, the trumpet springing from his nose and what the other hand is actually doing)

What they are doing only LOOKS like the game that professionals play. But how naive would we have to be to expect that beginners necessarily have the same standards as professionals? Just because you are playing cards doesn’t mean you are playing bridge. And not playing bridge doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong….. People starting out on the wheel are only potentially standing at one end of a spectrum where, at the other end, folks who have investigated and evolved and poured themselves into the medium reside. They are not beginners in the sense that they are lesser versions of professionals, merely that professionals start here to get there.

The interesting thing is that the same person can play Bridge AND play Go Fish. Right? What would have to be the case for a professional to throw pots like a beginner? Would they have to give up their hard earned skill? Or would they simply not have to care about the sacred standards and lofty virtues they somehow swallowed on the way to becoming professional? Now THAT is an interesting question!

Maybe I’ve beat this horse for long enough now. I’m not sure its dead, but I get the impression there are folks out there who never even knew it was alive in the first place (much less a horse, it seems).

All for now!

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

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