Serious Art

A Guide to Serious Art for Newcomers

by: Michael Stoy

(Originally published in December 1995 Ceramics Monthly)

As a newcomer to the world of art and ceramics you may find yourself intimidated by the written and verbal descriptions of the works you are viewing.  It may frequently seem like people are speaking or writing a foreign language.  You may find yourself completely unable to see any connection between the written description and the actual piece.  You may be further confused when you glance at the card and can’t see any way to relate the asking price to any intrinsic value of the work.  Do not despair!  The problem is not that you are ignorant or stupid but that you have not yet learned a few basic principles that underlay most of the contemporary world of Serious Art.

The Accessibility Principle – This principle states that for a work to be considered Serious Art it must not contain any elements that would make it understandable to the average person. Beauty, symmetry of form, realism, harmony of color or perfection of technique immediately disqualifies a work as Serious Art.

The Functionality Principle – This is a corollary to the accessibility principle and it states that for a work to be considered Serious Art it must not be functional or utilitarian. For example if a platter is to be used for serving food it can not be Serious Art but if the same platter is to be hung on the wall it then has a chance to at least be considered as Serious Art. The odds in this case would be against it though since it has elements that could be considered functional.

The Obfuscation Principle – This principle requires that for a piece to be considered for Serious Art status the written description of it must use as many large and arcane words as possible. In addition, the words should be combined in such a way that they have no coherent meaning. The colloquial form of this principal is “if you can’t baffle them with brilliance, befuddle them with bullshit.”

The Embarrassment Principle – This is the concept that no one wants to be embarrassed by admitting that they are ignorant, or that they don’t see the value in a work that everyone is fawning over. That being the case, to have your work considered Serious Art you don’t need to fool everybody. You only need to fool a couple of people (usually all that is required is to con the gallery owner) and no one else will dare contradict them.  No one is likely to say “this work is a piece of feces” out of fear of seeming ignorant, unrefined, uncultured, uneducated, etc.  This principle is referred to colloquially as the “Emperors New Clothes Theory.”

The Overpricing Principle – This is the principle employed by most gallery owners and show jurors as a quick rule of thumb for determining if a work is Serious Art. The basic idea is that if the price for a work seems to have any relationship to its intrinsic value or the time or skill required to produce it, it is immediately disqualified for consideration as Serious Art. The greater the difference between what the average person would be willing to pay for a work and the price being asked by the artist the more serious the work must be.

The Investment Principle – This is a corollary to the Overpricing Principle and is the principle on which most Serious Art investments are made (as well as many stock purchases). The principle states that it doesn’t really matter what the value of something is; all that matters is what you can sell it for tomorrow. This allows you to pay some outrageous price for a piece today in the firm belief that some other fool will be willing to pay an even higher price for it tomorrow.  The colloquial form of this principle is the “Greater Fool Theory.”

The Shock Principal – This principle states that the more grotesque and shocking the work is the better its chances are of being considered Serious Art.

The Talent Principle – This principle states that in determining whether a work is to be considered for Serious Art status the talent required to produce it should not be considered. In fact, if the talent exhibited by a work exceeeds that of the average third grader its chances of achieving Serious Art status are greatly diminished.

As a newcomer to the world of Serious Art and ceramics you should not despair if you find that after a few years of trying to master the medium you actually have no technical ability and no artistic talent.  You will be heartened to know that while you may not have a future as a functional potter you can still apply these principles and have a hugely successful career as a ceramic artist.  In fact, you can get your three year old to produce your works for you and all you have to do is go around to galleries and sell them as (you guessed it) Serious Art.

Of course to be successful as a Serious Artist you must be able to speak and write the language.  If you missed the course in psycobabble in school do not despair; I have developed two simple tools that will enable you to speak and write like a native.  You will find them useful in writing gallery descriptions, MFA show programs, review articles for magazines or newspapers, etc.

The first tool is a two paragraph summary that includes both a description of the work of Serious Art and a statement by the artist.  To use this tool to produce your own customized version you must select one of the choices from the words that are provided inside each set of parentheses.  You can do this by picking the word choice that seems to best fit for your particular work or, in keeping with the Obfuscation Principle defined above, the words can be selected at random.

TOOL NUMBER 1 — Serious Art Description Generator

Description of work:

These works make a (profound, dynamic, powerful, subtle, engaging, visceral)  statement through the use of (positive, negative, complex, raw, abstract, congruent) (space, form, elements, texture) creating a (feeling, symbolism, dichotomy, tension, beauty, vision) that is both (organic, holistic, self conscious, intimate, monumental, primal) and (natural, elegant, simple, flamboyant, opulent).  They (challenge, inspire, engage, entice, invite) the viewer to (ponder, feel, discover, understand) the underlying (visual, rhythmic, primal, psychological, symbolic) (elegance, beauty, form, meaning, power, passion) and (profound, subtle, deep, generous) (austerity, harmony, symbolism, vision, conviction) of the work.

Artists’ statement:

I am interested in (nature, truth, beauty, symbolism) and its relationship to (art, life, space, purity) as expressed through (form, texture, color).  This shows in the  (geometric, organic, psychological, visual, holistic, symbolic) aspect of my work.  My work has been heavily influenced by both (folk, contemporary, classical, primitive) ceramics and my (early teacher, father, mother, dreams) leading me to (explore, discover, develop, expand) my (self, roots, feelings, beliefs, subconscious, mortality, innocence) and my relationship to (contemporary society, folk traditions, nature, art).  I attempt to convey a sense of (neo-, mytho-, semi-)(poetic, organic, sensual, natural) (reality, sensibility, beauty, harmony) and (spontaneous, irreducible, indispensable, resplendent, sublime) (feeling, potency, introspection, power, vision) in my work that (transcends, enlarges, explores, symbolizes) (beauty, joy, life, art) and achieves a (aesthetic, sublime, visceral, powerful, primal, reserved, enduring) (truth, harmony, honesty, integrity).

For those of you who own computers a simple program can be written that randomly selects the words from the available choices to fill in the blanks.  An example of the results of such a program is:

“Description of work:

These works make a dynamic statement through the use of abstract form creating a vision that is both organic and elegant.  They inspire the viewer to ponder the underlying psychological passion and subtle symbolism of the work.

Artists’ statement:

I am interested in nature and its relationship to purity as expressed through texture.  This shows in the holistic aspect of my work.  My work has been heavily influenced by both folk ceramics and my mother leading me to discover my roots and my relationship to art.  I attempt to convey a sense of neo-poetic beauty and indispensable power in my work that explores life and achieves an enduring harmony.”

The second useful tool is a synthetic psycobabble synthesizer.  This can be used when you want to develop a more personalized description of your work than the first tool allows.  This tool is used when writing a biography or a description of your work.  When an appropriately impressive descriptive phrase is needed you simply select a random three digit number then look up the phrase produced from the table provided.

TOOL NUMBER 2 — Serious Art Psycobabble Synthesizer

first digit second digit third digit
1 passionate organic symbolism
2 dynamic honest form
3 abstract holistic texture
4 neo- intimate beauty
5 powerful natural vision
6 subtle poetic purity
7 profound psychological harmony
8 congruent primitive austerity
9 complex rhythmic elegance
0 sublime spontaneous meaning

For example: the random three digit number 259 yields “dynamic natural elegance” and 416 would be “neo-organic purity.”

Armed with the principles presented above a newcomer need no longer feel ignorant and intimidated by the Serious Art scene.  By making use of the two tools presented you too will be able to earn fame and fortune and command the envy and respect of your peers as a true Serious Artist.


Michael Stoy holds bachelors’ and masters’ degrees in mechanical engineering and is a full time Director of Engineering for a manufacturing company near Seattle, WA.  He is also a professional photographer specializing in wilderness images, and an amateur potter.  He has yet to produce a single piece of Serious Art.