There is a romance to wanderlust – the sheer adventure of exploring exotic lands far away from your own origins and home. Modern modes of transportation has made all this quite possible. There is an irony here in that as foreign lands have become available they have also become more globalized and influenced by those who visit them and thus they start to become more and more like us. There is a reciprocal exchange of influences when people visit another culture or country – visitors or tourists are impacted and take back to their home culture certain new ways of looking at things and different styles of living. The visited country also is influenced by the visit and sees certain advantages in adopting ways not native to their own land. Most people assume that this exchange and interaction leads to greater interdependence and mutual understanding across cultures and countries. I am not sure that the history of contact between previously unknown cultures and countries would back up this assumption. We only have to investigate the history of European discoveries in the New World to learn that the occupation and colonization of these lands led to the violent destruction of the indigenous cultures.
Multinational commercial and corporate transactions greatly homogenize the way people live and the ways things look across the globe. While traditional cultures might offer what is considered unique and valuable local or regional handcrafted artifacts, these aesthetic traditions are as fragile and vulnerable as the endangered species and plant life that co-exist with them in these regions of the world. Can we preserve or conserve the integrity of these foreign cultures and natural environments or will the rest of the world eventually be essentially just like us? Does being ‘highly developed’ have more to do with the quantity of things rather than the quality of things? Even the words we have used in describing these lands convey implicit assumptions of superiority. Are those nations that do not possess the same bathroom facilities or kitchen appliances we can boast about really ‘underdeveloped? Does it follow that their culture is also as underdeveloped as their economy? Would you explore the pottery of a foreign land and judge its quality by the GNP of that culture? Can culture ever be ‘underdeveloped’ in any human civilization? I am making the point that this history of assumed superiority subtlety influences how we regard and engage cultures in the non-Western world and can led to grave mistakes in judgment and the discounting of the profound achievements of cultures quite unlike our own.
This leads to further issues and questions for all of us to consider. Can we love our own culture or country without having to prove it is superior in all regards to all others? Is it even rational to make that kind of claim? Why does it seem so difficult for humans to take pride in the unique virtues and achievements of their own culture while fully acknowledging that all cultures enjoy unique virtues all their own? We live in a very competitive society where hierarchies of superiority are encouraged by the way we are organized and the way we think. To be number one – be it in sports or in life seems very important to us. Those of us interested in the arts usually don’t feel the need to transfer that kind of thinking to what interests us there. I don’t remember any book on pottery or aesthetics that tries to rank the 100 best pots or paintings in the world in order of their supposed value. We do try to establish the importance of achievements in the arts by describing those attributes of the artifacts that display the sublime refinements of a significant achievement. This is quite a different thing. The qualities of a cultural achievement cannot be reduced to a simple formula by which an easy judgment can be made about worth. One cannot obtain the wisdom and meaning of a cultural artifact by trying to decide if it is a winner or loser or by the amount that you have to deduct from your bank account when you purchase it.
This can lead to another possible tendency for us – to judge the value of the piece by affixing a monetary price on it. Now we have a firm quantifiable number by which we can gauge the value of the object. What a relief! But not all cultures put a price tag on things, not all societies are inherently commercial in that all objects are reduced to commodities for sale. Much craft was created for centuries for use in daily life without thought of production for profit. I am sure that a working potter needs at some point to place a price tag on the bottom of their ceramic wares. But I would hope that the potter would not think that act in itself determines the true value and qualities of the pot. I have been to too many pottery shows and galleries not to know that the establishment of monetary value is a necessary step. I bring my wallet, checkbook, and credit cards with me because I know that the final act of acquisition requires these financial accouterments. That’s the way the real world works, at least that’s the way our world works. We must remember that this is not always the way other cultures work.
As a collector, I do not want to think that the potter or ceramic artist is influenced or motivated while making the piece by opportunities to increase its monetary value. Perhaps I am being naïve here or making impossible demands for an aesthetic innocence on the part of the potter that cannot be sustained. I do recall times when very good potters have told me, when looking at their work, that some of the pottery were examples of their ‘bread and butter’ work. I took this to mean that these items were popular, often purchased, and provided a dependable source of revenue. Who am I to be a purist in this matter? I remember a passage in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter” in which I discuss the quandaries and contradictions of price and value,
“Do all potters start off as humble ‘repetition’ potters making stacks of domestic ware? And slowly work yourself up to that dramatic risk of doing far less work for far more money? Is the big difference, aside from ego and ambition, the fact that some potters are graduates of prestigious university departments or art schools, mentored by famous potters, while others start as humble apprentices in somebody’s studio? I would like to think, at that crucial moment of the business transaction – to buy or not to buy, that I am far more impressed with the quality of the pot rather than the modest price. There are difficult merchandising questions for both buyer and seller. Perhaps a scale should be installed in the gallery and pottery sold by the pound. Small pots, except for those by very famous potters, tend to cost less. I have talked to a few potters who are frustrated that other potters, perhaps at an adjoining booth at some pottery fair or show, somehow get a far higher price for pots they insist are not any better than their own. I do have some standards – I will not purchase a pot I do not like – no matter the bargain price. Now, due both to my modest financial situation and the few remaining spaces left on my shelves, I am selective in adding only quality pots to my collection. When do potters raise their prices? Are the quality of the pot and the increasing reputation of the potter the basis for increased price? Or is it all a bluff? Raise prices, cut down on production and hope people will be so impressed with the high prices that they will also be impressed with the pottery? As a collector, I do hope that my enthusiastic appraisal of your pottery in these letters will not be the cause for you to further raise your prices. There must be consumer psychology behind all this. Perhaps you should consult people who manufacture and sell footwear or fast food hamburgers to discover the successful marketing principles involved. I do expect my potters to outperform stocks and bonds – no downward fluctuation, please – steady and sure accrual of worth as potters and the value of their pots mature over time. It is morbid to relate, but it appears that your future demise, after a lengthy and successful career, of course, will provide the big spike in increased value for your pots. Despite all that, I do sincerely wish you a very long and productive life. At my age, I will appear in the obituaries far sooner than the precious young potters represented in my collection. What determines the prices at estate sales? Oh, well, I won’t have to worry about that; Judy will have to sort that out.”
It was Oscar Wilde, the 19th century Irish wit and playwright, who once said that “nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Ultimately no one can place the value on anything for you, that is something you have to do for yourself. The value of something is the meaning and importance you give to that thing. The ceramic artists has an extra burden here; they have to determine both the price for each individual ceramic piece and also make a continuing assessment of the aesthetic value of their own work. When I went on my lecture tours of Britain with my publishers, I would usually give a lecture at some university or ceramic gallery, then I would sit at a table and sign my books for those who decided to purchase them. I did not establish the price of my book; my publishers did because they incurred the cost of having them published. How could it be determined if readers got their money’s worth? How do you translate value into something as superficial as cost or price? (I guess it’s not all that superficial if you can’t afford the price.) As far as that is concerned, you are right now receiving my very profound thoughts and my very sensitive feelings completely free on this blog. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair. I have my pride and will not request a voluntary donation from the readers of this blog but if someone, rightfully full of guilt, wants to send me a pot or two I would not object.
I realize that I am contradicting myself when I earlier pleaded for potters to remain pure in ignoring the siren calls of monetary reward when creating their work and here I have just attempted to do the same thing. How much is a page of Jacobs’ text worth? This is one time when I do not wish you to respond to this blog. Your response could only be rude and hurt my feelings. We all exist in a world where we attend to both the sacred and the profane, the monetary price of objects as commercial commodities and the joyful engagement of objects as containers of beauty and meaning. We live in this world and yet we need on occasion to transcend it. I wish you the best in your own life’s journey in finding and giving your own meaning and value to those things you desire and treasure.