Friday, October 10, 2014

Final Word (Aritist Run Amok) Carter Gillies

I think you nailed it when you described the differences between the small 'a' and capital 'A' artist, and I think that differentiation describes very much about what we are talking through. Your argument seems mostly directed against the prestigious 'A' type artist also being humble potter sorts, and I agree that potters are such second class citizens of the art world that very little we do could move that celebrity focused side of our culture. There are no true potter rock stars the way that there are rock star musicians, sculptors, painters, etc. Maybe Grayson Perry is helping to put a more socially acceptable face on potters (even if its occasionally in drag).

When art gets promoted to the mainstream populace its generally not potters who receive the attention. The publicity machine of popularizing artists shies away from what potters do. No wonder potters have learned to keep grounded and humble! Whatever tiny prestige we garner is more to do with our own niche than any broad cultural context. If you ask a random sample of average Americans to name ten musicians, ten painters, and maybe a sculptor or two, my guess is that they would have no trouble. If you asked them to name even one potter who was famous you'd probably draw blanks. At most they might know the name of the local potter selling at the farmers market or the guy teaching at the University, or the camp instructor who teaches their kids. We simply don't know potters the way we know painters, musicians, and any other participants in the celebrity art culture that feeds on reputation and tabloid headlines.

The only point I'd make is that this division between big 'A' and little 'a' is more about perception than it is either what we do, how we do it, why we do it, or what kinds of things get done. The big 'A' seems to intentionally operate in the spotlight while little 'a' potters and their ilk eek out meager incomes in craft fairs, farmers markets, clay oriented galleries, and home studio sales. The game was decided before we even picked up a lump of clay: Potters will only ever be the poor cousin of the accepted 'A' artist culture. Its not that we did anything wrong. Its not that our work isn't good enough. Its not that what we do doesn't add real value to the world. Rather, its just that the scale we operate in is often insufficiently grand enough to warrant pedestals in the capital 'A' art market. Its too hard for gallerists to pay rent in SoHo selling $42 mugs.......

When you say, "It isn’t just an object but an artifact. It is presented in many museums, countries, talked about over all media, etc.It points to meaning beyond itself and calls attention to huge culturally significant things", I have to point out that not everything we call 'A' art does these things. What you describe seems more felicitous to conceptually oriented art. Most historical paintings that are venerated as capital 'A' art are simply paintings of this or that. They are acclaimed because of their craftsmanship, their beauty, who painted it, what departure it represents from contemporaneous painting craft, etc. What you are describing is how the art fits into cultural practices and the publicity engineered to put it there. And if cultural practices are what makes things art, then it simply matters how we treat them rather than what they are. What this suggests is that pots are not necessarily inherently different from some of the things that get pointed to as 'A' art. If we but treated them differently they would then be 'A' art.

And if not all 'A' art "draws attention to huge culturally significant things", some potters such as Kathy King, Grayson Perry, and probably at least one out of four newly minted pottery graduate students actually DO use pots as a kind of social commentary. Pots are just one vessel for potential meaning, a canvass that creativity can be exercised on. Art isn't one thing and pottery something else. They are kindred media for the creatively inclined to put to use. They are the tools of our expression. Pots are only immune to being called 'A' art if that's what we believe. Only, you have to wonder who told us to believe that and why. If you look deeper you see the weight of social conventions and contingent and arbitrary cultural decisions. The machinery that promotes some things as art and others as not art is part of a very profitable industry. If things are run according to their self interest alone its easy to see that potters will never get a break.....

There is no reason potters can't just call themselves 'potters'. I've seen some prefer to call themselves 'Ceramics artist' or 'Ceramicist' too. It turns out there is a lot in a name. Potters are not 'A' artists in the sense that we've been voted off that island. And as second class citizens of the art world maybe we need a 'Potters Pride' movement to help us restore credibility. Its not wrong to be a potter, even if top notch galleries would laugh you out the door, even if many academic art departments would shoo you away or stash you in the basement somewhere, sell off the wheels for more hand building tables. Potters seem tolerated in the art world at best. Not respected or really appreciated. And its easy to get defensive and stick to feeling good about the things that DO make us different. There's nothing wrong with us. If we are made to sit at the back of the bus, well maybe we can achieve some solidarity with the rest that are also sitting there. If its them against us, maybe we can make the 'us' thing stronger..... "Potters unite! There is no shame in being called a potter!"

That would be one response to the discrimination against potters. The view I take is that the discrimination is simply wrong and it is unjustified in any way that I've ever seen proposed to make sense of it. I'd rather fight the injustice than learn to live with it quietly in some vaguely protected corner of the world. Too may artists playing the 'A' game have a big head because folks have told them they are 'special'. Most of them are not. The fortunes of publicity are no true measure of a person's value. Its an accident of history that potters are respected so poorly in our culture. If we were living in Japan many of us might be acclaimed National Living Treasures. I simply refuse to play the game that has potters starting out with a raw deal. The game is rigged, and potters can never come out on top the way its being played. They tell us "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" but I think we should know who is pulling the strings and why. If the Emperor is wearing no clothes I'd rather shout that out than act dumb and 'ooh' and 'ah' as he passes by. If artists are special, then so to are potters. Some of us, at least......

So maybe I'll end this with agreement that, yes, potters do need to stick up for themselves. There is no shame in calling ourselves potters. But maybe we can do more than that as well. Maybe we can earn a place at the Art table, even if that means upsetting a few people who don't seem to want us there. If potters deserve respect we may simply have to fight for it. A broader understanding of art, less controlled by the ominous warnings and prescriptions of gatekeepers, only seems to point to a larger brotherhood and sisterhood of creativity. The 'A' artists are mostly a mythology of publicity agents. Some are geniuses, true. But how many geniuses are hidden in the dark corners of the world simply through lack of opportunity. Potters lack that opportunity through no fault of their own. I'd like to change that.

(Could you include this video here? Its the first of six videos, and they all explain a useful perspective on ideas related to our conversation.)

Thanks for the stimulating conversation!

Carter Gillies

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