Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hoops & HORSE

Believe it or not, this is not another basketball post. This is a pottery post. No, really.

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 losing (other than being supported by a whole lot of other HORSE ceramics enthusiasts) ...

...all the while engaging in the complex explanations of what is not readily self-evident about their work

...and all the while unwittingly addressing a confused 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 is quite probably the uncontrived world of Basketball pottery.


  1. WOW! I wonder how folks will respond to this. I don't think you are overstating the case, and I think your insight is right on target. I have been somewhat frustrated by art/academic potters incessant mythologizing and fantasizing of their practice, to the point where it can't be taken all that seriously - independent of whether they are doing something interesting or if they are even making good pots.

    I think you are right that the confusion originates with a desire to make pots into some sort of statement in the way that other Art media are expected to. This ceramic H-o-r-s-e shot inevitably looses sight of the one advantage pottery has in relating to the public, which is its humble role in daily life. I would not go so far as to say that the two roles are necessarily mutually exclusive, but certainly that art/academic potters' insistence on placing their work on pedestals obscures this.

    On the flip side I feel that the rest of the Art world has its own mythological problem by insisting that its own home is properly in museums and galleries. With this kind of fiction comes the expectation of living up to all sorts of bogus and fantastical rationalizations that were never a concern for artists a few hundred years ago. For pottery to get sucked into this romanticizing of their place in things only leads to the confusion you point out.

    Let me give you my take of the role of pottery as both an art form and a craft. I found pottery in the midst of working on a PhD in Philosophy, and was immediately captivated by the difference that doing something with your hands makes. I could spend weeks of intellectual struggle and nothing in the world would change, but my first fingerprint on the clay had irrevocably made the world a different place. From that first moment I understood that any creative act carries with it the potential to make the world a better place. And so I saw making pots as a mission to add beauty to the world, and to make a positive difference in the lives of other people.

    Art/academic potters are not excluded from this, but as you say, they are confused about what they are trying to accomplish. The more obscure the statements they aim for, the less they end up communicating with their public. I see their efforts not so much as different in kind as different in degree. I think the innate human capacity for creativity simply takes on many forms, and that it is no surprise that esoteric, obscure, and elitist efforts are misunderstood by the public at large.

    My earlier question about your comparison of musicians and potters came at the tail end of much debate about the role of 'style' among potters. In the art/academic parlance 'style' has become something for potters to embody rather than a tool to use for specific purposes. One of my arguments had been that I know musicians who routinely make their livings playing a whole range of styles, and that they suffer no artistic schizophrenia as a result. Potters on the other hand seem drawn to a focus of their creative talents that embraces parameters. I think that this has become something like focusing on a particular ceramic H-O-R-S-E shot rather than learning to play the game itself and doing whatever you want to do based on your abilities. As you pointed out in your response to my question, pressure to make a living may require considerable focus, but ball players don't give up on defense just because they are better as shooters, or fail to pass when someone else has a better shot. If you understand the game you play as well as you can in what ever way the game requires. Prima donnas may be excused from defensive duties but at what cost? Isn't that something like deciding you are only going to make a certain range of pottery style, and won't waste efforts on anything else? What do you think?

  2. really great points....i'm in the bay area on vacation (i live in western montana) and was just having this discussion with my girlfriend here as we were looking at pots/clay work and talking about the difference in price point/aesthetic/intention between what we were looking at and the type of work i do. very interesting.

  3. Hi Carter,

    Interesting points.

    I nearly deleted the whole post this morning after posting it. For one thing it was sort of rambling. For another, I realized that, in order to make a point, I was overstating the case to a degree. And I intended it to be more thought-provoking than declarative.

    And I purposely developed the HORSE/Hoops narrative much more than I developed my interpretation of it (vis-a-vis pottery/art) because I wanted to assume that anyone reading would then better assess their own place between those extremes without feeling judgement as to the value of where they saw themselves.

    Does that make sense?

    As you observed, it's doubtful that any successful potter is engaged completely and only on one side of the horse/hoops divide.

    I guess that, just as I saw the "Comment" by Conner Burns as putting an unrealistic burden on the developing potter -- a burden that would hinder rather than encourage development -- I sometimes feel the same way when I hear young potters whose goal going into pottery is to simply make the best pottery they can (to participate in the time-honored tradition of the utility-married-to-beauty that is -- seems to me, anyway -- pottery's natural role), and I hear those potters voice their intimidation by a sense that they are supposed to be able to understand the art world better than they do.

    And, in that regard, I see two distinct possibilities:

    1. That art's natural ambiguity has them misunderstanding "mystery", and wrongly assuming that it is "importance" or "significance".

    Said another way: Because they don't readily understand what's being communicated, they assume that that lack of understanding is because "art" must be too complex. When, in fact, it is quite possibly too simple, and it is their assumption that has them missing the simpler point.

    2. In the name of being open-minded to all sorts of aesthetic possibilities, instead (it seems to me) the way the art world informs the ceramic world is quite often to narrow its focus in a way that I would sorta humorously call "anti-Kinkadian".

    That is: Right now, the last thing an artist/ceramist wants to create is something that would be considered beautiful in a traditional sense, or understandable in a way that would accept any sense of objective truth.

    Somehow, out of fear of being a ceramist Thomas Kinkade, the artist would rather do what they know is objectively distasteful, than risk even coming close to being misunderstood as creating "cute".

    Add to the mix that their skills are developing along with their sense of what they want to say, and I don't like the position it puts them in. Skill -- whether with language or art (again, seems to me) necessarily precedes effective communication.

    My, I do ramble.

  4. Wow, Heidi. The Bay area. I'd love to get out there some day. It is a mecca of the guitar world. Some of the finest handmade guitars in the world are built in that general area.

    Anyway, back to the topic of clay -- interesting that you mention price points, because that is a MAJOR sticking point (if you ask me) when discussing this entire topic.