Is this an artist’s statement I should give to the folks at AKAR?

Hello virtual brain trust! I need your opinion. I need to give an artist’s statement and in the state I’m in I don’t really want to talk about my own work. I don’t want to make it personal until I rediscover why I’m making pots. Which doesn’t mean that all my pots are bad pots, just that the reasons I had for making them elude me at the moment. Everything I’ve said in the past sounds hollow and trite. It seems false to my current state of mind. And I’d like to be honest, at least in demonstrating why being an artist is not all champagne and roses.

So give a brother a hand, will you? Is this worth sending to AKAR?


One of the important questions artists ask themselves is “Where do I find wonder? By what am I amazed?” Artists who are serious about doing what they do are usually engaged in research exploring those things. We have questions about the world. Not merely what it is, but what it could be. We seek to add more of the wonder, more of the amazing, and make our world better as a result. Because we believe that doing this is the right thing. Because it is our moral obligation, our responsibility to remake the world, that we see important differences and are compelled to act on them. Artists are not merely driven by what the world already contains, but by what it should contain. And we make.

So being an artist is not like other jobs, and its not always about becoming well off or even always earning a living. That is not usually the point. Sure, we have to eat and pay bills, but there are many means to those ends. And making our art specifically as a means to earn a living confuses getting paid with making art. It can’t just be about the money. Artists are motivated in other ways, and the living we earn is sometimes secondary to our ability to get the right things done. The more we are making a product for the market the less we are engaged in pure research. The more that gets tied up in communicating with an audience the less purely we are expressing our own amazement. The more focused we are on the bottom line the less attention we have for the wonder. Simply put, things other than our curiosity typically pay much better.

Making a living as an artist is essentially a conflict of interest, and rather than reducing the extremes to find a safe middle ground we often simply reconcile ourselves to an implicit schizophrenia. Professional artists have both a calling and a job. What we think important may not be what others even find interesting. That is a hazard. We can’t just make what the public will buy, but we can’t often only make what our own instincts tell us. In an important sense artists are there to serve their art, and not the art being there to serve the artist. And yet it somehow must…..

From the outside the starving artist makes no sense. From the inside it can make perfect sense. Starving artists are admonished to simply “be better business people”, as if that would solve all problems. But the issue is deeper than simply being good at business. Almost anything can be bought and sold, but does that mean it should? Does having a skill, a good, or service automatically mean its for sale? That is a big question, and mostly we don’t know how to answer it.

For instance, the sex industry is enormous, and it just so happens that most of us enjoy lovemaking in our free time. Are we supposed to be getting paid for it? The issue is whether something we do for its own sake, for our own sake, should also be thought of as something we do for marketplace reasons. Does confusing the two cause us problems, or are we just happy to get paid? Every person denying the reality of the starving artist thinks it is enough just to get paid. They do not understand the conflict.

So here is an experiment. If you have a lover, the next time you make love make it a transaction. Puts some cash on the table and let them know how much you enjoyed their services rendered. Who knows, maybe they should be getting paid! But my best guess is that you will be slapped for insulting them. Something we do for love’s sake is not supposed to get measured by the cash we can get for it. Just because it LOOKS like a marketplace good or service does not mean that we are always supposed to treat it that way. Remember, the sex trade is HUGE. Why shouldn’t we get paid or have to pay?

There is another danger in looking at our intrinsically motivated activities as extrinsic: We can lose sight of our original motivation by getting paid. This is a real threat for artists. Another experiment: If you have kids, try paying them every time they did something right. Studied homework? $5! Took out the trash? $10! Nice to your sister? $15!

If you are hoping they will learn to value doing homework and other ‘chores’ unfortunately the last thing you should do is pay them for it. This substitutes one form of value for another. The idea that they are a chore implies something onerous rather than simply good to do on its own. They will start to learn that the reason they are doing things is no longer because they are the right things to do, that they should be doing them, but instead that they will get rewarded for doing them. And eventually they will learn that without getting paid they no longer really have a reason for doing those things. This is a tragic consequence of trading value for worth. Artists getting paid are in EXACTLY this position.

So pity the artist. I write this as my own artist’s statement, but it is meant to frame the difficulty that almost all artists are challenged by. If you read this and understand the dilemma you will have insight into nearly every artist’s practice. Consider it a possible Universal Artist’s Statement. Then look closely at what artists are expressing. If they are communicating well, chances are they are trying to. Not always, of course. But when we don’t get what an artist is saying its not always a failure to communicate but sometimes rather a different and unfamiliar agenda. And that too can be respected. That too may be important to understand. What is that artist’s joy?


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, Ceramics, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Is this an artist’s statement I should give to the folks at AKAR?

  1. alison says:

    “And eventually they will learn that without getting paid they no longer really have a reason for doing those things.”

    to me, this is the pivotal statement in what you wrote. yes, by all means, say it. hope you are having a good weekend.

  2. Stephen says:

    Cater, per my comment yesterday on your Mojo post, I think you’re simply off base on this. Your frustrated and you are looking at this wrong.Your examples don’t make sense. Sex is less when its paid for,art is not. The people that support your work are not the enemy and there is no conflict of interest between making money and being an artist, you’re obviously just going about it in the wrong way for you at this point in your life and its making you upset.

    I remember a post you made about your studio sale one year and the small mugs you made for the little kids so they to could pick out a mug too. That influenced me and I’m sure others.There was no conflict in that transaction. It was a beautiful exchange in every sense of the word. Your a potter because you love being a potter. It’s what you do and yeah ya got to get paid, nothing wrong with that and it does not cheapen your work or the process, its part of the process.

    I really really think you should not send that statement to anyone. I would remove this post as well and go do something non-art for a few days. Camping or something. Recharge your batteries. The beauty is still there, you’re just overwhelmed and striking out at the frustrating part of your life, having to do stuff for dough feels like the issue but its really not. At the end of the day its a bunch of really nice people that like your work. If ya want to sell them something different then do so. I bet a lot of your current customers will stick with you if you start doing some different work and you will discover other people as well..

    I assume you will delete this reply and please excuse me if I am out of line and being too personal. I am not an artist in the sense you but just a novice struggling potter and still working on finding my audience but I do enjoy interacting with the ones I do have and I know they often buy my pots simply to support me and I sincerely value that.

    Good luck my friend in your continued journey..

    • Thanks Stephen πŸ™‚

      I guess I need to reread the post to get a sense of why you feel I’m lashing out. It didn’t seem that way when I was writing it. I was attempting to explain something, maybe a crisis of faith, but I was being as coldly analytical as I am capable of. I’ll give it another pass, and if there are offending passages I will remove them. If the whole post reads as lashing out I will trash it, but I honestly can’t imagine what you are suggesting. Yet another instance of people with different opinions about the same thing! It really IS complicated knowing why people do and say what they do and say πŸ™‚ How much more complicated it must be figuring out why they do it, what motivates them. As long as we don’t simply assume they are just like us we may have the chance of seeing some different truths and unfamiliar points of view. That can only be a good thing!

    • Just reread it and I think it is quite magnificent, actually. The only thing I admit is wrong is possibly overstating how ‘universal’ these sentiments are. But then I also qualified that by saying it was merely “possible”. Only “nearly all” not “all”…..

      Read it again and tell me what you think. Remember too, there is a difference between asking a question and pointing fingers. When I say “for instance” I am giving an example, and it may or may nit be relevant. But that is the question, right? Is this other way of looking at the world relevant? That is what I’m suggesting, and these are my reasons.


      • Stephen says:

        Ok you you asked and that’s the only reason I am responding πŸ™‚ I love your blog and value your views and yes I do respect your right to hold a different view. I just don’t think this is a view, I think it is a mood.

        I don’t see the wonderful people that want to own my work as the ‘buying public’. I see them much more personal than that. I would sell insurance or flip a burger for money but I make them a coffee mug because I love making coffee mugs.

        I think the whore and bad kid analogies are completely inappropriate and I don’t think your logic holds up in the least, it is not the same thing at all. I know you insist you are not talking about prostitution but that is how it reads and of course a member of the family should not have to be paid to pitch in.

        Getting paid for your work shouldn’t have any negative effect on motivation. It is part of being a self supporting artist and not getting paid is not an option for a self supporting artist. The motivation is to keep selling your work so you can keep doing what you love to do.

        I do agree that if an artist can’t figure out how to make a living selling what they are moved to make that it would be frustrating, particularly if they have another line of work they can and have been selling for a long time but are no longer enthusiastic about making. That would mean they have to go back to that work to stay afloat. Changing directions means finding a new audience for new work and that means lots of crappy sales work and/or cheap living.

        Again, though. I get that my rant above is just my view point and just another take on what you have written. You have re-read it, stand by it and feel its a good statement.

        I think that makes it your statement and more power to you.

        • Well, you are not hearing anything I say, so let me suggest you read an essay by someone else who has looked into the psychological research and behavioral economics studies that prove (yes, I said ‘prove’) that what I am talking about is a REAL human phenomenon. It even has the ‘getting paid for sex’ analogy that you so objected to. It’s not something I invented, and maybe you will see its truth when someone brilliant like David McRaney refers to it or someone as well respected as Dan Ariely has devoted years of research to figuring it out. It might be a good idea to try to understand it rather than condemning it offhandedly as my “mood”.

          Yes, you have no clue what I’m talking about. I get that. But I’m not all on my own. And you can misunderstand or ignore the evidence all you want, just don’t tell me what I’m saying isn’t a legitimate perspective until you’ve actually tried to understand what I’m saying.

          READ THIS:

          If you still don’t understand, I give up and the conversation is over as far as I am concerned. I have tried the best I can. If you now see what I am talking about but would like some things explained further I am always happy to engage open minds.

          Best of luck to you

  3. Stephen says:

    Hi Carter,

    I do wish I had stayed out of this. I re-read all my comments and I don’t think I was rude but it certainly feels like it went that way and I am sorry I’ve upset you. I’m not having any trouble with understanding any of this but obviously I don’t agree but if I was too forceful, condescending or just plain rude please do accept my apologies as it was not my intention.

    Thank you for the good wishes. I too wish you all the best,

    • Hey Stephen,

      I apologize for getting hot under the collar. You keep insisting you understand what I’m saying, but I never wanted to suggest the things you are attributing to my essay. Your interpretation and my intentions are not even remotely close. So somebody misunderstands something! Either you or me. But since I wrote the essay and I know what I meant to express, I at least have the privilege of my authorship πŸ™‚

      So my question is what exactly were the words I used that you understand as making the case you suggest. Please help me! I have no idea what words specifically drew you to interpreting what I said as calling potters whores or that they are bad kids. The analogy has nothing to do with potters except that the human mind works in these ways, and I am pointing out the circumstances where these issues arise. And who knew! Potters have these circumstances too! If you read that article I linked to you will know exactly what I’m getting at.

      So again, sorry for getting miffed, but it pains me to be so misunderstood. If you still think that’s what I said, at least be assured that I did not mean it the way you took it. And I’d be grateful to you for showing me in just what passages of my post I made the claims you are suggesting. Again, I intended nothing even remotely like what you suggested. But I am interested to know why you think that.



      • Stephen says:

        Hi Carter,

        Hey no apologies necessary. I was worried I had overstepped and again if I did I am sorry.

        I don’t tend to delve into the mind in the same depth as you do. Your a philosophy major and I just took plain ol psych 101 so its very plausible I could easily miss a point you consider a given πŸ™‚ . Please understand though I am just sharing my opinion and that is all it is, an opinion. I certainly am not attempting to cause anyone frustration or be inherently difficult. I am somewhat long winded but really do try to limit my online responses to things I either really do know and/or care about. I am open to changing my opinion but I do admit on many core issues that prompt me to actually comment on it is unlikely. I should work on that.

        I do think Jim sums up exactly as I read it (and like him I did read it several times before commenting):

        from his reply:
        In addition, as an artist statement, the statement insults the people who are interested in your work because they need to visit a hooker* (you) in order to get sex (creativity/art/validation/etc.). It blames the patron because by paying you for the art, they are creating a spoiled indulgent child (you). It also implies that the work they enjoy enough to purchase has lesser value because it’s work that you feel you HAVE to make, not what you find interesting. That their very interest in it implies that it’s not worth your passion.

        I honestly don’t see how anyone could have read your post and not drawn the same conclusion. I think the disconnect is that you knew your point but when it was included in your overall post, as well as becoming part of your block of writings recently, it actually changed contexts from what you said was intended in your reply to Jim. Its not that the intended point wasn’t conveyed, it was crystal clear. By using those analogies in the context of the post it just made the point in the expanded way that Jim so masterfully sums up.

        I read the post, as a whole, as a continuation of your frustrations with the business side of art and the fact that making art that sells trumps making art for arts sake in order to make a living. We (your readers) don’t really look at your writings as stand alone pieces or as objective opinion. We, at least I, read them as you and your life. We are following along with you as you are taking your artistic journey. We share in your joys (such as the tiny mug story I brought up from one of your prior post) and your frustrations.

        If you look back through your recent post I think you might agree that they recently kind of lead up to this post formalizing the whole thing in an artist statement, almost like an epiphany. That’s what I meant by mood.

        Another thing I will say is that I don’t think an artist is condemned to selling their soul one pot at a time if they don’t want to but that means having to keep cycling through ideas and prototypes until they can find a ‘fit’ between what they want to make and what enough people want to buy. It might need to be, out of necessity, a transition instead of a swift change and that does mean subverting the artistic process to some degree. One take out I have gotten from this exchange and your writings is that I need to keep changing my work constantly so that I don’t end up with line I am tired of making but too many people are buying for me to stop.

        On Whitney Smith’s blog she has serialized her similar struggles and she has introduced a completely new line of work and has also lamented that she is struggling to make the same living with it that she has been making over the years with other work she no longer is passionate about making.

        That is another side to this I also think you might consider. Many of your readers are like me and consume several blogs and our reactions and opinions are formed in totality of these regular blogs, not just one.

        I see you made another post on this confusion between us. I am going to read it BUT I am not going to comment. I think I have said enough.

  4. Jim says:

    I think this is a great essay, It’s thoughtful, well written and hopefully makes other artists think.

    I wouldn’t say it’s a good artist statement because it’s AN artist’s statement, not YOUR artist statement. You talk in the abstract, not the personal. You talk about finding wonder but you never talk about your wonder as it relates to your art. Akar doesn’t want a Universal Artist’s Statement, they want yours.

    In addition, as an artist statement, the statement insults the people who are interested in your work because they need to visit a hooker* (you) in order to get sex (creativity/art/validation/etc.). It blames the patron because by paying you for the art, they are creating a spoiled indulgent child (you). It also implies that the work they enjoy enough to purchase has lesser value because it’s work that you feel you HAVE to make, not what you find interesting. That their very interest in it implies that it’s not worth your passion.

    It all seems a little hostile. There’s been a lot of resentment, frustration and thinly varnished anger in a number of your posts for a while. A bunch of it seems directed at the customers and galleries that want the work that you’re no longer passionate about making.

    This is my impression after reading your statement about a dozen times over the course of several days to make sure I was comfortable with my read on what you wrote. From the outside looking in, it looks like you’re suffering and in a bit of a crisis right now. I wish you the best.

    *I chose the word intentionally because of it’s connotation. I am not denigrating sex workers.

    • Well, I appreciate you reading these essays and I am glad you have found something of value there.

      It seems I was not clear in using the two thought experiments, because both you and Stephen assumed something that was never my intention, and for the life of me I can’t actually see where you both are getting it from. I neither said “potters are prostitutes” nor that “patrons are to blame” for anything. Please please please understand that I am talking about the vagaries of human psychology, not engaging in name calling or the blame game. I honestly have no idea where you get that…. What I am trying to explain is how things can look from the standpoint of an artist’s own motivation. And this is a human question. It’s not simply about making art.

      So Jim, if you could, please quote the exact phrases that make you think this. I would be very interested to see what exact wordings give you this impression.

      When discussing the analogy with sex, there was only one purpose in using the example, namely to answer this question:

      “Does having a skill, a good, or service automatically mean its for sale?”

      Is that even a good question? I think so, and so I picked an example that straddles the line between some people getting paid to do something and others finding the issue of getting paid uncomfortable. Does THAT make sense? What do those two different circumstances tell us? It seems to suggest that the issue depends at least in some part on where our human psychology places the skill, good, or service in question. Certainly NOT that all people selling goods are whores!!!!! I have no earthly idea how you go from an attempt to answer the question I asked to me calling out potters as whores. Please show me the words that say this and I will happily delete them or hopefully find some other way to make what I’m arguing more easily understood.

      In using the example of kids getting paid I had one specific issue in mind, again a psychological issue, which was phrased this way:

      “There is another danger in looking at our intrinsically motivated activities as extrinsic: We can lose sight of our original motivation by getting paid.”

      This is a phenomenon that has been studied by psychologists and behavioral economists for decades but has apparently not made it into mainstream thinking. I’m not making this stuff up. You should read this overview of the issue. It makes reference to the work done by reputable and even Nobel winning scientists. Really, please read this and see if it seems like I’m in any way finding cause to blame patrons for buying art.

      Not coincidentally, this article give the sex example I used. I didn’t just make that up.

      If after reading this explanation and reading the article I just linked to you still feel I am engaged in what you suggested please show me the words that lead you to that conclusion. What did I actually say? Is it possible you read too much into the words that were presented? Maybe not, but I’d be grateful if you could show me.

      Thanks for having this conversation. It is upsetting to me to be so misunderstood, and if my points were made poorly I apologize. Having reread then for the 20th time I know exactly what I meant by those words, but you may be looking at them differently. What you suggest was never my intention. Blame the words, if they are the problem, not me.

      All the best,


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