Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Cost of Pottery- Follow-Up

Not everyone will agree that hand-made pottery (by that I mean functional ceramics) is now an art rather than a craft – that is, that it should be judged by the same artificial standards as art, rather than the practical standards (time, energy, materials, etc) of a craft. Here’s why I think so:

The problem with selling pottery – the reason this discussion is necessary at all – is that pottery, as it is currently understood and practiced, is in a middle ground. Pottery is, and has always been, a utilitarian item, one of the oldest utilitarian items produced by human beings. And it is still one of the things we use most frequently. The problem is, the technology of mass production means it is no longer necessary to hand-make pottery. Pottery can be machine-made faster, cheaper, and in some instances (as one of Philbeck’s commenters notes), more durably and at higher quality than hand-made.

So people still buy pottery. The “problem” is that they don’t buy hand-made pottery from craftspeople – they buy mass-produced pottery from Target. And that’s only a problem to the craftsperson – not to the consumer, the economy, or pottery broadly considered.

It’s a big problem for a craftsperson who wants to make a living from their craft, however. Everybody who has tried or is trying to make a living at a craft knows that. If you want to make accessible, useful pottery, there is no way to compete with Target in price, no matter how incredible your production schedule. And for the majority of people who drink coffee or bake casseroles, hand-made does not carry a value in itself. It’s not enough to educate people about how much work it takes to make a mug by hand – they can just ask, Why bother?

That means hand-made pottery must belong exclusively to an elite who can afford the higher prices hand-made requires because they appreciate the artistry of hand-made pottery.

Many have made the analogy that, for people who will pay $50 for a shirt or $200 for a sweater, paying $40 for a cup should not be a problem. In general, someone who will spend a lot of money on food might spend a lot of money on clothes, but when it comes to utilitarian items, what you will pay becomes a subjective decision depending on where you place your value. So that analogy breaks down. Some people will pay $100 for a pair of shoes but balk at buying a shirt for more than $10. Some will buy $15 a pound coffee but could care less to have quality clothes.

But hand-made pottery, because of its price and relative rarity (compared to mass-produced pottery), is no longer strictly a utilitarian item. It is a collector’s object. And if what you will pay for necessities is subjective, then what you collect is totally idiosyncratic. There is no reason a person’s preference for expensive food and clothes – things everyone needs – has to extend to hand-made pottery – something that, let’s face it, nobody needs.

(If I wanted to be really brutal, I could say that nobody needs pottery of any kind. We can use glass, we can use plastic, we can use metal – why pottery? Pottery is only necessary because we have a culture that says we should drink our coffee out of ceramic. Pottery is not a practical necessity, it is a cultural necessity.)

So this is pottery’s middle ground – on the one hand, a utilitarian item meant to be used, eventually broken, and finally discarded; on the other hand, an objet-d’art for an elite. And an object simply cannot be utilitarian and art. Art has always belonged to the elite, and if the object is meant for use, it has to be for an elite who can afford to Coffee mugs break. Plates break. Even plates used once a year or for special occasions break. A fellow pipe collector once answered the question “How much is too much to pay for a pipe?” with the same formulation: “If you’re afraid to smoke it, you paid too much.”

There are a lot of reasons you can decide a hand-made cup is worth the price. Maybe because it is hand-made, and you are aware of a person making it; maybe because it is one-of-a-kind, impossible to exactly reproduce; maybe because it is a beautiful object that appeals to you in an inexplicable way. But it has no more inherent, practical value than a mass-produced Target cup – or a glass jar, or a tin cup, or your own hands held together.

Hand-made pottery has to be considered art. Whatever the potter intends, he or she makes art, in the sense that hand-made pottery is expensive, rare, and only available or desirable to an elite that has developed a sense of taste and value the makes it significant. You have to decide that hand-made pottery is valuable, because on a purely practical level, a cup is a cup, and a $5 cup will hold water as well as a $40 cup.

The art market is an artificial market, because it is sustained not by people buying a necessity but by elite collectors buying desired objects. The value of a work of art depends on the artist’s fame, the desirability of the object, the rarity of the object – all kinds of factors unrelated to the practical aspects of creating it.

So on an art model, some potters make cups worth $70, some make cups worth $40, some $20, some $10. That’s not devaluing the product – it’s recognizing that artists who are starting out, still learning, with no known value, make objects worth less than known artists. That’s the reality of selling art. If you can price your cups at $40, do it. If you can price them at $90, do it. And if all you can get is $10, get $10.

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