Tuesday, January 8, 2019

One Man's Devil/Another Man's Angel

There's an interesting story within the story of Warren MacKenzie's life. It's part of his lore, but I'm not sure how or even if it will be addressed because the overwhelmingly popular sentiment might be masking a greater reality. In other words, there might be just a touch of political correctness within the pottery world that is keeping folks from grasping an interesting reality.

Ryan Greenheck touches on the story in this bit of autobiography:

"As we all reflect upon Warren Mackenzie’s passing I wanted to share one of my most treasured experiences in my ceramics career with you all. I was so fortunate to have several exchanges with him throughout my life. Every single one stands on its own. This was our first encounter. This is also my first piece I ever had accepted into a national juried exhibition. @sikora.studio (Linda Sikora-later my prfesdor @alfredceramics ) and @sandysimon were co-jurors. It was held the Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota, where Warren taught for years. I spotted Warren across the room and my mother proceeded to bring him over my ceramics hero. I was a bit star struck and pretty nervous. Then my mother without hesitation asked him why he no longer signed his work, I too wasn’t signing my in part because of Warren. Omg mother! I thought it was simply his affection for Mingei and the unknown craftsman. Nope! A guy was simply showing up to his studio and buying every piece that had his mark on and reselling it. I guess it was his form of payback ;) Shortly after I started signing my work, in the hopes of one day being as cool as Warren to not sign it out of spite! Thank You Warren Mackenzie for being the greatest teacher I never had"

Somebody was showing up at Warren MacKenzie's sales, buying pots as MacKenzie had them priced, and turning right around and ebaying them for multiples of the original price.

The practice was seen as some sort of scalping on this anonymous villain's part. 

But was it? In the long run, wasn't this guy facing a reality to which MacKenzie was blind -- either willingly, philosophically, or...and just as likely....simply because, being involved in academia, he really had no idea of the market for pottery? Couldn't this be seen as a service this anonymous villain did for MacKenzie?

I would love to know what the real value of my work is. Pricing one's work is a shot in the dark. It's trial and error. And when inventories are hard fought for by processes that just about guarantee a huge amount of loss -- glaze materials that vary, firing in combustion atmospheres, material/clay that by nature wants to crack and break as it dries -- every trial in pricing costs a great deal in inventory.

 Price too high, sell a few and you'll find that you've trapped yourself by the ill will of those who purchased at that high price, only to find that you had to lower it when the market didn't really support that price.

 Sell it at a too low price and find that you didn't sufficiently pay yourself as a potter.

I don't think I'd resent some guy buying my stuff to re-sell it. I think I would that God for his guidance in helping me see both the value that I was not recouping in my pricing, as well as the insight he was offering as to my place in the market.

But the curious thing is that if I were to express this in the world of potters, I fear I would likely be seen as equally villainous for not understanding that we're not suppose to profit from our labors.


  1. My interpretation of McKenzie's choice not to sign his pots in reaction to people buying up his work and reselling them on ebay wasn't that "The practice was seen as some sort of scalping on this anonymous villain's part." That is, it wasn't a problem simply for feeding the pockets of some market manipulator. Rather, Warren was INVESTED in making his pots available to ordinary people for ordinary prices. The fact that someone could take an entire kiln load of pots out of circulation was a betrayal of his intention. In other words, it had less to do with someone profiting on his work and more to do with disrespecting the reason he was making pots in the first place.

    It might be something like owning a parcel of land that was a nature preserve which had been passed down for generations and used as a place to shelter a number of species of animals. You sell the land with the intention that this is what it will be used for, and then it gets leveled to make room for a new shopping mall. The 'real value' of the land is not an issue. This is not a problem that can be solved by paying better attention to the marketplace. It is an issue where the purpose of things is in question.

    Why is someone like McKenzie even making pots into his 90s? Just to make money? Or to gift as many people as possible his work at reasonable, affordable prices? If only people with deep pockets can buy his work it contradicts why he was making work in the first place. It is on this level that Warren was being disrespected.

  2. H.O.R.S.E and Basketball are both decent games. The fact that they share a ball and a hoop often allows for some confusion.

    A group of H.O.R.S.E players can borrow anyone's basketball and play their game.

  3. ...it also might (and has been) observed that respect and disrespect run both ways. It isn't possible to enter the open market with underpriced work without affecting the market of those involved in it to make a living.

    I don't want to make out that MacKenzie is some villain in this narrative. But his wish to sell pots as what he deemed "reasonable" cannot be granted without the unintended point made that other's prices are not, thereby, reasonable.

  4. Your point about using the same basketball in different games seems the opposite of what you are suggesting with one person's prices undermining other's. In the first case, with the basketball, there is an objective difference in what people are doing. In the second there is a supposed objective congruence in what they are doing, appealing to the 'same' market.

    We have talked before about whether every potter is in competition with every other potter, or whether the audience for one potter even translates to being an audience necessarily for other potters. If I would never buy any of Joe's work, much less a mug for $90, it is not undercutting him that Sally sells her mugs for $15 and I want one. I wouldn't buy Joe's mug in a million years! How does one person's price necessarily affect another's? Perhaps only to people who can't tell the difference or who value what each artist is doing similarly. But other than those specifications? How is one potter's mug THE SAME THING as another's? Does it undercut my prices on mugs that you can go see a movie for under $10? The congruence you imply is weak under the best circumstances.

    That might be a discussion for another time. My point above was merely that Warren has a *reason* for making pots, and that was not being honored by whomever was buying up his work for resale on the ebay collectors' market. The basketball analogy is closely related except that there is no personal investment in a basketball. It is not supposed to be one or the other. As an artist it seems things get made specifically with the intentions of their makers, and sometimes it is a shame if a cup meant for drinking winds up as a pencil holder, or a plate meant for dinning ends up with a planted pot on top of it.

    Makers seem to have earned the right to have expectations for what they make. Some digressions from those intentions will be acceptable and others less so. Warren SPECIFICALLY made his pots with the intention of reaching a broad audience without the burden of costing an arm and a leg. If it were only one or two pots being diverted from his intended audience it would be one thing and perhaps not as offensive. But whole kiln loads is a deliberate slight to his purpose.

    Can you see where he was coming from, even if you personally would never go that road?

  5. What if someone had enough money to buy every pot in your next ten kiln loads and told you that what he was going to do was smash each pot and dump it in a landfill? How would you feel? Is it only about getting paid for your work, or do you have some dreams for the lives of your pots once they leave your possession? If every pot you ever made was wiped from the face of the earth, but you still got paid, would you feel like your life was pointing in the right direction? If it is only about the money potters should probably be working at McDonalds.......

  6. Oh, this is really good. So much to say and such a cumbersome medium in which to say it. I'll have to get back to this.

    It's a good thing we have such a private place in which to hold such a discussion. ;)

  7. Sometimes you just have to carry on making because that is what and who you are..it is your being. Seems like quite a few potters feel that way

  8. I do remember visiting Warren's sales shed many years ago when he was in that phase and looking, looking for a piece of his. My consolation prizes were some nice pieces of Guillermo's (which were marked and still in daily use in my cupboard). It is worth mentioning that Warren did go back to marking his pieces later so places like the Northern Clay Center and Babcock could sell them for a good price.

  9. Some responses to the direct questions, and some thoughts that may seem disconnected, a bit disjointed, but somehow as they rattle around my brain, they seem to bump into the same subject and relate to it:

    I am hoisted on the petard of my own faulty metaphor. H.O.R.S.E vs. Basketball can take on several different inferences that differ from, but are just as likely a conclusion as the one I intended by using the metaphor in the first place.

    Being a former basketball player (did you know I went to college to play basketball, not to study ceramics?) the metaphor was a natural. I actually thought of a “Harlem Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals” metaphor and still like that one, but I would have bumped into the same problems with how it fit the ideas I was trying to convey.

    One of those unintended inferences is that H.O.R.S.E, being a rather silly offshoot of the original game of basketball – complete with arbitrary, extemporaneous rules, rather than standardized, time-and-game-tested universal rules based on a larger context of sport -- one might understandably conclude that I think one or the other of the two factions in this discussion is silly while the other one is more serious – more valuable.

    Maybe I do mean that. In my mind I think of the world of “art” as the game of H.O.R.S.E, while I’m thinking of craft as the game of basketball. And since I am not a participant in the world of art, and my vocational endeavors and lifestyle (as well as my knowledge base) lie almost completely in the world of craft (in spite of my bachelor’s degree in the former) my choice belies my sympathies.

    But intellectually (not emotionally) I think my distinctions are philosophical. Art = H.O.R.S.E because it is by definition unmoored from a greater reality. Art makes up its own truth. Art is invention, not discovery. Art defies rules. And though art has historically been tied to a conversation with culture, the nature of that conversation has changed drastically in the past 200 years. It has changed, and it has become an esoteric echo chamber for an elite few, culled from the culture and attempting to influence that culture rather than attempting to be a reflection of any culture as a whole.

    Craft, on the other hand, is a world of discovery, tied to community by service to it, and held to standards that transcend it – dictates like the unyielding nature of the materials, the historical understandings of the culture in which it functions, the specificity and accuracy required in communication. Oh, craft is very inventive, but it invents within convention while art tries to defy and redefine convention. Craft works inside the fences. Art says there are none.

    Now I’ll turn a corner.

    Thomas Jefferson would be ridiculed out of our post-modern world. In the year 2018, there is no way he could pen the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. For one thing, in our post-modern world, “truth” itself is but a quaint concept that is at best or at most tenuously tied to notions of utilitarianism if it is believed as a concept at all. Mostly it is tied to power. Whoever has control gets to decide truth.

    We used to hope that reason would lead to power. We now have concluded that power will dictate reason. Truth is what the powerful say it is. If you want something to be true you can make it true by seizing the power required to declare it so.

    Theology followed philosophy down this path in the 20th century when it acquiesced to modernist declaration that religion was an exercise in invention. Up until that time theology was practiced as an exercise in discovery. Before the twentieth century, theologians sought to discover a transcendent truth. Mid-twentieth century theologians decided what was and was not truth by a completely different set of presuppositions than the one that had guided it historically. They were embarrassed into this intellectual acquiescence by a modern understanding of science and the philosophies that drove it.

  10. Where am I going with all this? How is this tied to Warren MacKenzie and his pricing? I’m not sure. I think it does though, so I’ll keep writing.

  11. So, let me connect at least one pair of dots.

    The problem with MacKenzie's desire to sell pots at what he decides is a reasonable price is that he can't make that choice in the open market.

    He can't bring the sensibilities he gained from his game of H.O.R.S.E onto the basketball court and expect all the basketball players to stop what they are doing and start doing the trick shots he demands.

    MacKenzie has a say in how much he will take from the pots he sells, but he has little or no power over what the open market determines will be their value.

    Again, his desire to offer work that is affordable might be laudable on some level. I'm sure his heart was good.

    But reality is bigger than MacKenzie. And so is the open market. And I don't have to guess at this. The guy who bought his pieces for resale proved it. Objectively. Observably. He proved it.

    We don't get to dictate how the market will price our work. We only get to dictate how much we intend to recover from the sale of our work. Sometimes those two things result in the same price. But the world of the collectible proves over and over and over again that they aren't always the same number.

    MacKenzie might as well have been spitting into the wind. And his solution of not signing his work worked on a sort of humorous level. But in reality, it was an exercise of cutting off his nose to spite those who wanted to own a piece of his work -- even those who were agreeable to his arbitrary pricing (as the person upthread who actually wanted to have a signed piece because they loved the man, not because they wanted to resell it at a profit.

    As to the mythical guy who wants to buy all my pieces to destroy them? I'd sure wonder why he'd want to do that. I guess I'd sell the pieces to him. I'm supposing I'd try to figure out some way to turn his perversity to my advantage -- maybe I'd blog about the experience and become famous as the first person in the history of mankind to have had someone buy all of his work just to destroy it.

    But more to the point, that example is exactly the opposite of what happened to Warren MacKenzie. The person MacKenzie was dealing with was affirming MacKenzie's greater value to the broader world.

    Elvis could come back and demand that his mementos be sold for a reasonable cost. MacKenzie's foe proved MacKenzie's Elvis-like status in the world of pottery. MacKenzie, humble man that he was, may not have liked to acknowledge that, but it doesn't make it any less a reality.

    And finally, to address the other non-sequitur: The point isn't that MacKenzie's low prices affect the prices of his competition. The point is that MacKenzie was, by his statements about the value of pottery, openly defying many of his peers who were making a living -- not from teaching pottery, but from the sale of their actual work. And MacKenzie was telling the world at large that those peers were overpriced. That, at least, is how some of those potters explained their position on the matter to me.

    Me, I've always had low prices. Between market forces and my need to make a living solely from the sale of my work, my pricing has always been safe and conservative. I'm not Elvis. I'm not even Bobby Sherman.

  12. I agree with very much you have written here, but I think you are still standing a bit too close to your petard. You say that the difference between art and craft is that craft is "tied to community by service to it" but you identify McKenzie as beholden to the art world, playing H.O.R.S.E. rather than 'basketball'. Just about everything I've heard from him suggests a shying away from the art world you describe if not a straight forward return to a sense of community specifically made possible by his ordinary aesthetics and his willingness to price his pots as affordable. It is not his design or intention that his pots became fashionable in art markets. Compared to him, both you and I make and sell pots in a way that is more representative of the art world. Warren was resisting being drawn into that world when he took pains to prevent his pots being resold there. Do you not see that?

    And to suggest that "MacKenzie was telling the world at large that those peers were overpriced. That, at least, is how some of those potters explained their position on the matter to me." is somehow *his* *fault* and not the oversensitive if not absurd reaction of those slighted potters is like saying that if I tell people that Gina Lollobrigida was the most beautiful woman in my memory that I am necessarily calling out every other woman as being somehow defective. In other words, you seem determined to say that Warren can't have an opinion about his own work without impeaching every other potter who doesn't submit to his ethic. And you say this moments after a postmodern declaration that truth is in the hands of those with enough power to promote it. Isn't Warren simply exercising his own ideals? You seem to be standing very very close to your petard.....

    Perhaps you see the marketplace as an expression of that truth-making power, but you can't just stipulate that it is the only such power. The marketplace is merely one of many spheres of influence, and it doesn't automatically trump other sources or ideals. You yourself even suggest that your "need to make a living solely from the sale of my work" is a factor in the truth you adhere to. So by your own admission the marketplace does not explain everything important exhaustively, and it also matters how one's own (yours, in this instance) framing lends to an activity's value.

    That last is also important for a point I made earlier that you seemed to misunderstand. My suggestion of someone buying up an artist's work and then destroying it was simply an illustration that potters CARE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS TO THEIR WORK WHEN IT LEAVES THEM. Nothing more. Their own perspective matters, at least to them. If you feel we are not entitled to care then I guess that is why you have such a difficult time seeing what Warren was doing as anything other than an assault on your own values. But then it is also strange that you should care about your own ability to make a living as you choose and not grant that same favor to others. Your petard is truly magnificent and awe inspiring! :)

    Did any of that make sense?

  13. "Do you not see that?"

    Of course I see that. That's my point all along. Quite possibly because he didn't depend on pottery to make his living, he didn't see that he couldn't be part of that world.

    My point all along is that MacKenzie was apparently oblivious to the fact that he could not be part of the world he most closely identified with. He wanted to be in the world of basketball, but he made his living in the world of H.O.R.S.E and it made it improbable for him to see that he couldn't simply choose the world into which he was going to sell his pots.

    In fact, in my Jan 1st post I pointed out the irony that he actually wrote an article in Ceramics Monthly in which he gently chided his fellow academics for sort of double-dipping in the world of the NEA grants because they didn't need the money from the grants -- they were already paid by the world of State-approved art.

    To some extent the lines can't always be hard and fast. But most of the folks I know who teach first and pot second still have to make marketing decisions.

    But not everyone is going to have the name recognition that takes that decision from them. MacKenzie did.

    And, sure, I think about where my pottery will end up. But, no, I can't control it any more than I can control the market, any more than I can make myself famous. Still, it simply doesn't work -- to my mind -- to compare one person's buying work to make my legacy disappear, to someone buying another's work in a manner that actually furthers his legacy.

  14. Thanks for the nice discussion, by the way. It's always a pleasant surprise to find somebody reading the blog.

  15. That's what makes this a community :) Not that we are all on the same page, believe in the same things the same way, but that despite our differences we choose to think of ourselves as belonging to and members of the same world. It is always something loose and personal. You and I are brothers in more ways than one :)

    Do you ever get the sense that our labels are too restrictive? That 'art' and 'craft' have become a way to separate out things we (someone. Garth Clark?) decide don't belong, and are tools of an agenda rather than simply descriptive? Or that what they describe is a weaponized version of the facts? The framing of facts to fit our divisive narrative? That families are torn apart because we decide you can't believe this or do that and still belong?

    I agree that Warren had some blind spots and was hypocritical more than once, but so are we all. And he wasn't just one thing himself. An academic? Yes, for part of his life, and then he retired. Did that change who he was or what he was doing? Well, it meant he had to earn his living as a potter in a way he hadn't previously. The man was still producing 5000 pots a year into his 90s.

    So maybe there is a problem trying to pin things and people down once and for all. "Is it art or is it craft?" Well, who is asking and why do they want to know? This is where your postmodern critique comes in. Whose game are we playing? Whose power is the question serving?

    One final attempt at the whole "destroying a person's work" analogy. Yes, they are not the same things (destruction and putting work on ebay), but my point was never about *the* *nature* *of* *the* *things*, it was always about the-difference-it-makes-to-our-feelings-of-purpose and how that is reflected in what happens to our work. It was a point about our being *entitled* *to* *care*. And you can care about the good things and the bad things.

    It is not an indictment that good and bad are 'different things'. The point is that you have some reason to care. You have a reason to insist that whatever happens to your work once it leaves your hands is part of *your* game. That is, you have a reason to expect that a plate will be used for dinning, a cup for beverages, etc. You can also have a reason to expect that the work will wind up in the hands of ordinary people who can appreciate it ordinarily and not a handful of self selected artworld snobs who can afford it at extreme prices. In your narrative, that difference might matter.

    You are entitled to have whatever expectations you want, even if it doesn't turn out you have much if any control. And that was why my example of the destruction of pots was so pointed. The extremity of the example either shows that we DO care or we don't, and if we don't it is a reasonable question to ask "Why not? Why don't you care?" The point being that you'd be a strange creative person if you didn't care, but had staked out your entire scheme for earning a living doing what you do creatively. Would you just be making an anonymous product for a market you have no investment in other than getting paid? I don't think I know a single potter who feels that way. Do you? We don't just care about what we make, we want it to be appreciated the way we think it deserves.

    Just stuff to think about :) You don't need to reply.