Finding a Balance in an Imbalanced Art World

Hannah Anderson worked as a “Pottery Marketing Intern” this semester. She is a senior Art major at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. In this post, she describes our semester long task of trying to define the role of pottery in the contemporary art world. 

Guest Posting by Hannah Anderson (view her Linkedin page here)

Throughout my internship with Joel, we had many discussions of “high art” vs. “low art” and where his pottery fit into the mix. High art, one could argue, is not functional for the consumer. Traditionally, the function for this type of art is to sit in a museum as a masterpiece, observed through this elevated status.  Low art is generally mass-produced, inexpensive, and far more available to the public. In my critical theory class, we discussed how museums have opinions on high and low art as well, and can influence how people view artwork by either appearing intimidating or more approachable.  

The terms “high” and “low” art should be reevaluated and adapted to today’s contemporary art world. Words that correlate with high art seem far too Renaissance or Baroque in feel, such as “master of art,” prestige, traditional, western, still-life, landscapes, portraits, and, my favorite, original.  This particular word poses the question: can high art even exist anymore?  I would argue that it certainly still exists, but not in the same light in which it was originally established.  High art and low art should be adaptable terms for each new generation of artists. Low art has synonyms such as: consumerism, production, affordable, advertised, ordinary, etc.  This is a challenge many artists face today, and it creates a huge imbalance in the art world. 

Joel poses the question, “why are we making and selling pots?” He gathers a lot of insight from potter Warren Mackenzie, whom also has a lot to say about art as a functional vessel vs. sitting in a gallery space. Warren is an 89 year old, world-renowned artist. He is most at ease with his work when he knows it is being used, handled everyday and looked at often. Pottery has the potential to be the most intimate of artwork, because it’s users have constant contact with it.  Clay is not expensive and is made from the earth, so when does it make the transition from low to high art?

Price plays a factor into what is high and low art.  Warren says “A 10 dollar pot, now that’s affordable.”  He says that if it breaks, then it is not a huge loss.  This is interesting coming from a renowned artist, because his philosophy conflicts with his position in the art world; his pots resell on Ebay.com for hundreds of dollars everyday. Mackenzie says, “Unfortunately, now I only sell through galleries.” His philosophy seems more focused on low art, but his standing is high.

Bernard Leach, A Potter's Book, 1940, Joel Cherrico Pottery
Bernard Leach, “A Potter’s Book” 1940 – Pottery mentor to Warren Mackenzie

I like to think that many artists in today’s art world present a mix of high and low art, and it is perhaps just difficult to find the balance.  Right now, an imbalance is evident in Joel’s artwork. His pottery is functional, consumer-friendly, priced lower than most professional potters, and is meant to bring a comfortable aesthetic to anyone’s home. His online store is in contrast with this idea, because we take a high art approach by using professional photography equipment to shoot pots in front of a gradated background. We then use these photos to try and join the contemporary art world.

I wonder, is the Local Blend pottery high or low art? At the Local Blend coffee shop, they use Joel’s pottery in mass, so anyone can eat and drink from his pottery everyday. This seems much closer to low art to me. We take the same pots and put them in front of a gradated background, making them high art in a different atmosphere.  Without a little low art, high art wouldn’t be possible, since the Blend is where most of Joel’s income is generated. Writing about this venue has also brought him some of his biggest successes in the art world, including 2 major magazine publications. Perhaps these everyday pots will someday be elevated to a high art status?

Low art is what’s paying the bills, yet in the future, Joel wants to support his livelihood with a balance between low and high art. This means more of his income needs to be generated from our work on the online store. One way we accomplished this was by branding his artwork in a more focused way, using one glaze: the Nuka Glaze with iron. Nuka with iron had a great deal of success for Joel throughout my internship, enough for him to narrow his focus toward solely that glaze. Currently the online store has less Nuka with Iron than Joel would like, and his future plans are to recreate his online store geared toward pottery of only that glaze type.  Over 50% of the online sales were Nuka with iron, and Joel sold pots with this glaze type to five different people both locally and nationally in one week. He has also completed 4 dinnerware sets in this glaze, 2 of which were sold through wedding registries. We see huge potential in this glaze combination.

IronDippedWineCups, SKU#326, Image 2

Nuka Glaze with Iron, Joel Cherrico Pottery, 2013 Nuka Glaze with Iron Stoneware Mug, Joel Cherrico Pottery, 2013

This branding was influenced by Ayumi Horie, who certainly has a recognized, established, successful brand for herself. Her style is easily recognizable on every pot. Her artwork sells at high prices online and is always sold out in less than a day. Moreover, Horie has earned her place in the art world through years of consistent craftsmanship, a huge resume, and skillfully writing about her craft in major publications.

Our experience with high art continued through Paige Dansinger– an internationally renowned painter and art historian who is collaborating with Joel. She makes high art in the form of painting on canvas, digital paintings on IPads, projections, performance, and most recently, painting with glazes on Joel’s pottery. During my internship, she opened a gallery in the Minneapolis Skyway Mall called Gallery Paige. Everyday, she exhibits and sells her artwork as high art. The collaborative work made by herself and Joel has huge potential to take off in the high art world.

BlogPostImage1  Handmade_Painted_Plates_Paige_Dansinger_and_Joel_Cherrico_Artist_Collaboration_SKU_317_Image_1__50351.1381113981.235.275Paige Dansinger Painting on Plates, Joel Cherrico Pottery, Handmade Ceramic Painted Plates

Paige-Dansinger-Paintings-Joel-Cherrico-Artist-Tableware-2013-Gallery-Paige-Van-Gogh

To conclude, perhaps in today’s world, the balance needs to be found in the middle of the spectrum between high art and low art.  Are the best artists those who spend their time making both high and low art? One could argue that they can reach the most amount of people that way.  Because that in fact is what art is all about: reaching the most amount of people with a particular message. The meaning of art and its purpose to be seen can easily get lost when identifying it as either high or low.  As renowned potter Bernard Leach said, “To me the greatest thing is to live beauty in our daily life and to crowd every moment with things of beauty. It is then, and then only, that the art of the people as a whole is endowed with its richest significance.”

1 comment

  1. Thanks for the thought provoking article!

    There a saying by Sam Musibini, the Italien~Arab coach for Harold Abrams in the movie “Chariots of Fire” that for me, applies to this post. Sam said: “You can’t out in what Gods left out!” Whatever this says about high or low art, what it days to me is that pottery is a skill that ANYONE can learn and enjoy and they can get good enuf where they can throw anything from toothbrush holders to sets of of dishes and thousands of mugs. That may be functional and beautiful, and it may be art….but it’s reminds me of my wife’s piano teacher as she grew up. The teacher had a skill of playing piano, but she did not have a gift of music and playing. And so, if she taught her students long enuf, a few of then, gifted musically, would surpass their teacher and would have to find a other teacher. What I’m trying to say is that there is a gift of Art that when translated to pottery painting, sculpture, etc, transcends the skill level. And perhaps THAT is high art….perhaps THAT is what people may pay more for ~ something that few people can create, something that is rare, something that transcends the functional, or deeply enhances the functional while using and gazing upon.

    Peace in Creating!
    ~ Ken

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