For two days last week, I streamed the video (and listened to the audio while I worked in the shop) of some workshops and some panel discussions that took place in conjunction with the NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) conference in Philadelphia. The workshop presenters included: Christy Assaud, Andy Brayman, Ron Meyers, and Ellen Shankin. The panel was made up of people I hadn’t heard of before, but included Mary Barringer (editor of Studio Potter magazine), and Ayumi Horie.
My mind has been spinning around what was said – both as part of the presentation, and as I caught casual conversation between presenters.
It seems we are a medium – ceramics – caught between two pursuits, and can’t make up our mind just what the game is. Therefore, we have (seems to me) collectively either accepted a certain level of defeat, or have developed (or are developing) a language of rationalization that is necessary to encourage further ambiguity about the game, less resolve to decide which game, and a whole lotta failed and/or terribly and needlessly intimidated potters as the unintended consequence.
When I was a kid, I loved basketball. Still do, though I seldom play anymore. I also liked to play "HORSE" -- a game that shared a basketball, a regulation hoop, and little else with the actual game of basketball. HORSE is a game wherein if a player makes a basket, the other player (or next player, if there are more than 2 players) has to make the basket -- shot exactly the same way and from the same spot on the court. If player #2 misses, he gets a letter – H through E. The first player to spell out H-O-R-S-E is the loser.
To a little kid, HORSE became a game of trick shots -- shots that would never be attempted in an actual game of basketball -- shots with a very low percentage chance of successful execution. We'd behind-the-back, or bounce-in-from-the-free-throw-line, or hook-from-center-court.
Even as a kid I began to notice an interesting thing about HORSE, though. The trick shooter would get VERY legalistic about exactly how a trick shot had to be executed ("hey! You were standing on the wrong foot!" or “No, you have to shoot it over your LEFT shoulder.”). The game’s goal became nebulous. Unlike basketball where the goal is pretty darn clear (the guy who gets the ball through the hoop most, wins), HORSE was about the tricks and how they were done. The arguments broke out over whether the shot was done right, not whether the ball went through the hoop.
Another thing I began to notice as I got older: Good basketball players would always beat good HORSE players -- at either game. Since an opponent must duplicate a made shot, HORSE is a game of control. If a guy didn't miss much, he didn't relinquish control of the basketball -- he got to pick all the shots. A good basketball player would finish off the typical HORSE-master with 15 foot jump shots that never missed. The trick shots never came into play. They never got a chance.
The only hope the horse-player had was to either get REALLY good at the trick shots, or convince the hoops player to try trick shots himself. If the option was left open to the hoopster to play it straight, he would always win. Why? Because the skill set required to win at the actual game is greater than, and more refined than the skill set of the average horse player.
Said another way, if the Horse player wants to enter the game of basketball, he’d better hope he can find a “Washington Generals” to play against. (Remember the Harlem Globetrotters? You do know that the Generals weren’t really playing defense, don’t you?)
And it’s not that the basketball world isn’t populated by people who love the aesthetic nature of the sport. They most definitely do. The dance, the motion, the beauty. But in each case, the beauty or whimsy comes as a bi-product of the goal of the sport. In the game of basketball, though just as fun to watch as a trick shot in horse, the behind-the-back pass isn’t executed simply because of its beauty. No, it is executed because there’s a tall guy standing between the player and his teammate, and the only angle happens to be behind the back.
And maybe the hoops lover loves the aesthetic dished out as side dish, rather than as its main course (to mix a metaphor or two) Maybe when that kind of whimsy shows itself in the course of a game, it’s even more special.
If you are going to choose to play horse (nothing wrong with that – maybe even admirable), don’t complain that the world of hoops lovers doesn’t “get it”. Sure, they share a common ball, common basket – in some ways they look alike – but don’t be fooled. They’re not the same. And just maybe it’s your choice of esoterica, not their lack of sophistication that’s the problem.
And maybe if you get incredibly good at HORSE, your audience will grow and/or you will find sufficient similarly HORSE-minded supporters for your game.
In a manner similar to the parallel universes of Hoops and HORSE, the world of ceramics is divided. With a single material and similar processes, we are capable of attempting to make good pottery or of making something akin to art. That might not be too bad if we, as potters, were more aware of when we were doing which. And why we were doing either.
But one universe is a craft that inherently participates in the day-to-day life of the entire culture. The other universe is a contrivance that seeks to communicate. And lately that communication is less and less participatory with the culture to which it purports to communicate. Instead, it sets about purposely alienating it. And then, with audacity, it blames the culture for not understanding the communication.
One of those universes seems a winsome pursuit.
And so we have a world of workshops and academia that is feeding us some very useful information, while at the same time discussing the world of HORSE ceramics and why they are getting beaten (other that being supported by a whole lot of other HORSE ceramics enthusiasts) and engaging in the complex explanations of what is not readily self-evident about their work -- all the while addressing an audience of uncertain potters-in-hoping who are now puzzled as to how they can possibly make a living…
…when the real clay game for those hopeful someday potters might just be the uncontrived world of Basketball pottery.