Repost: Is the value of art a material object?

First posted August 16th, 2012 as “Is the value of pottery a material object?” (See the comments there for some good discussion. Feel free to add a new thread here 🙂 )


The funny thing I’ve noticed in my time among fellow artists is that very few of us would count as typical materialists. Generally speaking we tend to find that the world contains more important things than the stuff it is filled with. And yet, potters and artists of most stripes obsessively add new things to the world and almost take it as a personal mission to exponentially increase the total number of items the world includes. How many thousands of Carter Gillies original pots do I have on my conscience? How do any of us reconcile this?

The issue came up yesterday in a conversation I had with a friend who was picking up some older pots from a gallery. As is to be expected she wasn’t too fond of what she had to pack up. Any artist who is evolving, who aims at getting better at what they are doing, is less likely to look charitably at their past work. You grow as an artist and you move on. And what you’ve left behind is never as satisfying as it was once upon a time. Nor is it as welcome as what interests us now. It has lost its luster. In a sense these pots have died for us, and at this stage they aren’t much more than the clay they were made from and a distant memory of the dreams we once had….

So, in a sense I completely understand where she was coming from. I’ve been there too (in my dubious experience, almost every kiln load is a painful measure of my disappointment. Its rarely ever good enough….). And so, my friend’s comment was to the effect that there is already too much stuff in the world and that the world certainly doesn’t need more mediocre pots. Her pointed summation was that she was “not a materialist”.

So the question is, is the value of a pot (or of any art) purely that of a material object?

Well, pots are material objects, so in some sense this must connect to their value, but does art add no more than simply other ‘things’ to an already overcrowded world? Can we be against the materialism of our culture and still feel good about making pots? Even ‘bad’ ones? (How else can beginning students sleep at night, for goodness sake!)

The challenge is to see that objects bring more to the world than simply the object. I made the statement in a recent post that part of the potter’s faith is that a life surrounded by pots is a life worth living. Doesn’t that sound like something a materialist might say? Hoarding our collections like dragons in their lair….. The question is, can you not be a materialist and still think that….

Part of what it seems to come down to is a balance where the quality introduced by objects counts more than the quantity.

At what point does the beauty of a Michael Simon jar outweigh the dread impact of yet one more material thing in the world? At what point does having it in our lives tell more about its effect onthe quality of our life than the materialism of a measurable investment or status symbol? Aren’t we objecting that the materialist takes the things too seriously, too whole heartedly, that for him theyare the value? Aren’t we offended when materialists make the typical confusion between what something is ‘worth’ monetarily and what its ‘value’ is? That they often only see Dollar signs, Ducats, and Guilders? That quality for them is inherently defined by some measurable quantity?

So, what is the difference?

The question comes down to just how little beauty it takes to make the world a better place. If we measure kindness, generosity, love, and all the finer qualities of human expression we find that having it is almost always better than not having it. We also find that adding more is usually a good thing. So the question is, does even a ‘mediocre’ pot not add something unique and precious to the quality of the world? Surely it at least has this chance…. Witness the unfathomable joy of the person who takes it home with them and cherishes it for the rest of their lives. Doesn’t this speak louder than any objections? Isn’t it true that other people value even our own sorriest and unloved pots differently than we do? And that in the final analysis we are not the best judges of how well something will fit in someone else’s home? Their life?

But how can this be possible? Especially since the artist is the one responsible for giving it material form. Isn’t it up to us to decide? Isn’t that object our responsibility and ours alone?

This is perhaps the hardest lesson for artists who have truly outgrown their primitive beginnings…. Its the idea that we don’t always see the quality of our own work as clearly as other people do. Our judgments are always front loaded to the present, and the present isn’t usually comfortable with its creative past. In disowning an old pot we dismiss its claim on our values. We can overlook and ignore what others see. And when we deny its different standard of value, we can be abysmally wrong. We forget the joy we felt when we first made it. Its as if we are out of step, out of tune, with the self from out past. And what this means is that value simply transcends the pot itself….

But I would also say that the question goes deeper. I think it may very well be true that many potters see their art mostly in terms of the finished product. And perhaps this is skewed unfortunately by the role of the pot itself in a potter’s life.

I made this. Soon I will try to sell it. The object hovers between my imagination and the imagination of others. How am I supposed to measure that?

I made this. Soon I will try to sell it. The object hovers between my imagination and the imagination of others. How am I supposed to measure that?

In my post relating the admirable qualities of Olympic sport to those of pottery I focused on how similar the kinds of process were between the two. The idea was that of our art being a performance akin to an athlete’s performance in a sporting event. Linda Essig, one of my favorite bloggers andarts advocate, chimed in from her perspective as a theater person: “Yay for process! Also, intention.That’s what makes it art after all.” And perhaps it takes an artist sufficiently unencumbered by the material manifestation of creativity to see this more clearly. What we do as creative people isn’t merely the clever construction of new objects. Concrete lifeless things. We perform. We execute.

As potters it is often hard to see this. Its not that we are blind to the sometimes backbreaking process behind what we do. Its not that we are unaware of the often laborious application of technique that can mean the difference between success and failure. No…. The difficulty is rather in the sheer emotional and financial weight that goes into the object at the end of our process. If the object fails, the art fails. Or so we often suppose. And if the object sells? The art was a success…. If how we make our living is so dependent on this pot before us, no wonder we fixate on the status of our art as an object….

Its sadly all too easy to become disconnected from the execution of our art when selling our work can be so separated in time from the process of its creation. In the theater, a show is an animated performance. The art is on display as an actively undertaken process. The art is obviously a dynamic engagement. The parts are always moving. For potters a show can come weeks, months, and sometimes even years after a pot was actually made. The process that gave it birth can be so far back in our memories as to occasionally be forgotten. We don’t often remember that the pot is, in an important sense, only a placeholder for all the creative processes and technical wizardry that went into its making. We can convince (deceive) ourselves that the pot is close to everything when making a living stands or falls on being able to move product….

But if we step back from our nose on contemplation of the objects of art we can see the wider perspective of the universals of creative process. I’m an eager explorer of comparative creativity. I like to consider just how related the art of pottery is to other art forms. And even things like sport. I find connections almost everywhere. That’s one of the reasons I avidly read Linda’s blog. I am also a huge fan of the irreverent Chuck Wendig, an author and notorious balloon popper who blogs fastidiously and profanely about the creative process of writers. I also like to check in at the wonderful gatherings of source materials by the gals over at Brainpickings. And then, even, I often get a kick out of the art flavored dots connected to the stuff of food by the great blogger over at Edible Geography. The point being that art may look very different (incommensurable) from the outside, if we only consider the form it takes, the object it produces, but the human endeavors of creativity, the performances, are certainly more alike than they are different. Something to ponder, at least….

And so, I’d also like to say that it is our fascination with the pots themselves that disguise the quality they bring to the world. If we are not materialists we need to be more serious about finding the nonmaterial good within the objects we are surrounded by. That is our burden. Not simply wishing for fewer things…. If we think creativity is important, then we should be less concerned that it might end up in concrete form and more interested in what kinds of things get made. Applaud (or lament) the creativity, not the object created. As with beauty: You don’t often get it unless it takes place within some object, a gesture, the smile on a face. We each seem to have our own key for unlocking it and for finding it in strange and out of the way places. That is a precious gift. But all too often we confuse the ephemeral instantiation of beauty with why we found it so remarkable. Cherish the beauty and not the place it happens to reside (Beautiful people, after all, are not better people. A beautiful teapot does not necessarily pour better….). Kindness is the caring between one physical being and another. Its not a matter of physics but of emotional value. And so on….

We should not resent the physical implications of these values. They are not discredited by coming to us in material forms. Appreciating beautiful things no more makes us materialists than ‘dreaming’ of a better future means we are asleep….

In the end, worrying about the number of things in the world is a materialist’s concern. Worrying about the quality of the world is something quite different….

Peace all!

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, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Repost: Is the value of art a material object?

  1. Linda Doherty says:

    I missed this the first time you sent it. So glad you repeated it. Please have a look at the video that was done a month ago. I am totally relating Linda

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Pingback: The Symbiotic Relationship | CatTail Creative

  3. After taking a hiatus from doing any kind of art, except building my house, I came back to a lot of stuff that I felt needed to go in the trash. It was on the whole, pretty discouraging. I’m so glad to find out I’m not the only one who has had this experience.

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