Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Cost of Pottery

One of our favorite pottery bloggers, Ron Philbeck, opens a provocative question for discussion in his latest blog – what should pottery cost?

Since Carrie and I have been debating this exact question (prompted, like Philbeck, by Ayumi Hori’s opinions on the subject), I thought I would take it on here in the OCD blog.

Just to be honest, I’m not sure I can answer this question as a potter. Old Cat Died is a family business, but I don’t consider myself a potter – Carrie is the potter. But I am equipped to address this question with an analogy from the world of publishing.

No one – NO ONE – makes a living exclusively from writing poetry. Some poets teach poetry classes, some teach in other fields, some work 9-5 jobs, some write for other kinds of publication – but no one makes a living as a working poet.

In the 19th century, however, many people were able to live from publishing poetry. The reason is simple – at that time, an exploding publishing market and a public taste of poetry made it practically possible. Newspapers published poetry, magazines published poetry, every periodical published poetry. Poetry was entertainment, but more importantly, it was a part of daily life and culture. Poets were craftspeople providing a cultural necessity.

That is not possible today, because there poetry is not culturally necessary in the same way it was 150 years ago. So poetry today survives as an elite taste, poetry books (usually quite short) have tiny press runs and poets have to make a living in some other way. Poets live off the patronage of a set of elite poetry fans, who can afford to buy books that are priced well beyond books of comparable length and who have developed a taste for poetry that gives poetry value to them. For the culture at large, poetry has no value.

The situation is the same for hand-made pottery. For the culture at large, hand-made pottery has no value. Hand-made pottery has no inherent value, no practical value, no economic value. Its only value is an artistic, elite value. Its only value is the value of beauty, of craftsmanship, of cultural cache and status. Its value is the same value as any product of the humanities, whether that product is fine art, literature, dance, etc. And it’s time for potters to accept that.

Maybe it’s the wrong question, asking what potters need to do to convince people who will spend $200 on shoes to spend $40 for a coffee mug. You cannot create a market; you cannot create collectors. You cannot convince anyone logically, because realistically it is not logical to spend money on an unnecessary object.

Some practical advice makes sense – develop a relationship with buyers, find a patron. But one piece of advice, one that comes from the world of poetry, may be more apt – get a job. It may mean getting a degree and finding one of the scarce and violently fought-for academic jobs that can pay for your materials and cut your costs. It may mean working in other fields and struggling for time to produce pottery on your own time. It may mean finding an understanding spouse who will work to provide while you work to produce art. If you love your art, you will find a way to do it.

This is what poets – and a lot of other kinds of artists – have been doing for generations now. The era of the yeoman craftsperson is over – good old-fashioned American technology has made sure of that. And barring a cataclysm that destroys all modern technology and leaves us only mud and stone, that era will not return in our lifetimes.

So pottery needs a new business model. As another of Philbeck’s commenters tells us, trying to make a living as a professional potter will get you a working-class salary or worse – not enough to live the kind of comfortable life your collector/buyers live.

We all want to make a living doing what we love. But sometimes that means finding other ways to do what you love. This is not a problem of the economic downturn. It’s a problem of a capitalist manufacturing culture. And it is not going to change.

It will have to be craft that changes – not our pricing, not our advertising, not our networking, but our way of thinking about what we do. And that is not going to come from longing for a craft past or dreaming about a utopian future where craft is valued for its own sake. It has to come from looking at similar fields and learning from them.


Ron said...

Gabe, great post. I agree that what we are doing as potters and poets does only apply to a very specific market and those folks do often have an income that affords them the luxury to buy handmade objects that they appreciate. (and pricey books too). I think you are right in saying that we are not going to win over the majority of the public to buying or even appreciating what we do. (I have tried certain members of my own family and they just don't get it). However I do think it's in our best interest to network and expand our markets using avaliable technology to reach those folks who may be interested in our work. I have met collectors in the UK from my blog and they have bought pots. I think social networking is a way to present work to a group of people who I may not have been able to reach otherwise.
North Carolina is a great state to live in as a potter and there are plenty of folks here making a living from pots. Not an extravagant living mind you. Still like a few have said, it's doing what you love and finding a way to do it that matters, and that may certainly mean getting another job, or having a spouse that has a steady salary. Sarah and I were both full time artists for 7 years. No health insurance, no cable tv, etc. Sarah now has a job as a therapist and that regular paycheck gives us a little piece of mind.
I think developing relationships with our buyers and like minded individuals is one of the best things we can do. The biggest thing I think we can all do is be sincere and show the passion we have for our craft. If we are honest and excited then I think it goes a long way in getting others to see what we do matters, to us, and to others.
I agree that we have to move forward. Trying to live like a potter from 150 years ago is no good anymore, no matter how romantic it may seem.
I think we can learn a lot from other models out there. I admit I haven't looked at many but I'm sure open to it. Thanks for sharing the info. from the writers point of view. I was hoping this discussion would open lots of cans of worms and it's going well so far. It's good that we can all share our views and learn from one another. Thanks for contributing. Catch ya later.

Instructor said...

Howdy Gabe!

Just read both the posts and appreciate your insight from this related field. I agree with your thesis that many potters are being a bit disingenous in not aknowledging how specialized their market is. And of course the fall out is that not everyone can support themselves just by making their art. That was one of the first and only real life lessons communicated to me in art school some three years into a six year art school experience. They never like to talk about how you are going to make a living, and it took a visiting instructor to finally clue us in. That was why after I got out of grad school I took a job doing something else and just made pots in my spare time. And now, after all these years, I still wouldn't be able to support myself without the teaching gig at good dirt. Part of my issue, of course, is that in Athens we have so many talented atrists to divide the local pie of money spent on art. So I would agree with you and Carrie and Ron that things like the internet offer an exposure that cancels the saturation of pots locally. Thanks for the helpful posts! Talk to you guys later