Art’s ambition

Its the year 2139, ten years into the war with an alien insect race, and human resistance has faltered. There are just a handful of safe zones that have not been overrun.

Johnson straps into the harness of the one technology that has made survival even a glimmer of possibility. The tech doctors check the connections and monitor his output levels. The readout starts scrolling on the monitors. For seven years at least Johnson has given his best each and every shift. The Intention Translator has turned all his nastiest intentions into reality, and this alone has kept the ravening hoard from the gates. Otherwise, Old Chicago can kiss its a-s goodbye.

Dr Evangeline smiles down at him as the ‘nasties’ start flowing into existence just beyond the far perimeter, engaging with the advance elements of mechanized insect units. Johnson’s twelve hour shift has begun.

…………

A warning light flashes briefly on Evangeline’s screen. She checks Johnson’s vitals. Nothing out of place. But as she leans over him she hears an unexpected sound. Johnson’s stomach is rumbling.

Warning claxons blare overhead as the stream of ‘nasties’ doing battle with the alien invaders is suddenly replaced with first a giant Big Mac, then a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and next a Krystal burger.

“My God!” screams Evangeline, “He’s thinking about food! If he can’t keep his mind on nasty intentions we are doomed!” Pandemonium breaks loose as the entire defense complex prepares for an immediate emergency evacuation.

Then, from the corner of her eye, Evangeline notices something different on the huge screens displaying the conflict: The aliens have stopped their advance. They are all eating the burgers. As the red warning lights strobe in the chaos Evangeline turns and sees a thing she had almost forgotten was possible, even as part of her deepest dreams: The aliens are retreating!

Within the week all aliens have taken to their ships and departed the solar system. He’s done it! Johnson has won the war!

Heh, heh…..

So the previous post explored an idea that what makes art ‘art’ is a specific sort of intention, maybe just the intention for something to be ‘art’. Perhaps things like that get said for good reasons, based on what one has thought about the power of intentions and the idea of art. It sure seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? Except that if you look at the nature of intentions more closely you can see that they are generally superfluous. They fly all over the map, and they often have very little to do with results. They don’t always have staying power. Other people get different things from what we intended. Sometimes they are necessary, yes, but not always.

The difficulty is that intentions are part of conscious behavior, and the link between what we are thinking in the moment and what actually happens is often a bit tenuous. Never mind that what you are intending and what the rest of the world sees is not always on the same page. You might say that intentions are only really alive in the mind of the person intending. The situation for art is generally more complex than the influence of simple intentions.

Results are complicated by a number of things. For instance, we change our intentions, we have bizarrely unrealistic intentions, and there are a host of unintended consequences to almost all of even our most important actions. Never mind that we are subject to influences that are beyond our conscious control or even awareness. Many of the better things we do happen on auto pilot (in other words, without our consciously intending them). Intention is similar to our ability to pay attention: We have a limited capacity, and deal with competing demands to focus in the ‘right’ place. It wavers from one thing to the next. It can be undone by the next intention in line…….

I could talk about intentions all day. In fact, I practically did. Then I changed my mind and erased eleven whole paragraphs of rambling. The intention that started this post was to talk about art’s ambition. If that intention got compromised along the way, perhaps the ambition for it survived. And that seems like an interesting point. A good illustration of the difficulty we are faced with too……

‘Ambition’ seems like a related word. What about that? How are ambitions different from intentions?

Well, I think it is safe to say that many fine artists have the ambition to be ‘fine artists’. Whereas intention is in the conscious moment, and thereby subject to radical and instantaneous change, ambition is a slow burner that can be present beneath the surface when we are doing other things. We say that we intend to eat a cone of chocolate ice cream after dinner, but when we get to the shop and see they have 52 flavors plus daily specials we change our intentions and get one scoop of the coconut and one of the blueberry cheesecake. Intentions are like that. They flicker in our mind’s eye as we are drawn first one way and then another.

We can intend to eat a skyscraper. Briefly, perhaps, and maybe because something got us all riled up about it. There is no accounting for what we can intend given the right frame of mind. In a calm moment we can think better of it. Or we can get distracted and now intend to yell at the stranger who splashed mud on us as he drove through the puddle next to where we were standing.

But what if I had the ambition to eat that skyscraper? What would that mean? Well, I might wait long enough for the city to tear it down and then go to the site and grab some rubble and fine dust to sprinkle on my breakfast cereal. I could walk in the building each day and strip some of the wallpaper to chew on. Or I could go the easy route and start with the freestanding things like pencil erasers and potted plants.

Ambitions are less in the moment and more a sign of commitment, no matter how bizarrely we direct those ambitions.

Ambitions differ from intentions in that they are not necessarily conscious and that the duration they have is not measured by how well we are paying attention to them. The ambition to be a fine artist may, for instance, involve going to school, graduating with good enough grades and a decent portfolio that they will admit you to grad school, finishing grad school without having gone insane, and then parlaying the connections you made to introductions into the professional field, and, of course, bedding in with the art market and developing a brand that makes the work acceptable to the relevant gatekeepers. That’s one way of doing it, for sure. A very well trod and clearly delineated path for ambition to take us. We see the ends we want and the means are presented to us in prepackaged form. “How appealing!” some might say.

The interesting thing is that none of that need apply. That’s not the only way to become ‘an artist’. Its not necessary to drink the cool aid to make decent art. We don’t need institutional sanctioning for what we are doing creatively to be seen as or in fact to be art. And more importantly, we don’t have to ‘play the game’ at all. One sort of ambition about art will definitely take the acolytes through the system and smooth the rough edges, manicure all their habits and skills into officially sanctioned ‘art’. That’s what the institution does so well: It gives you ‘Art’.

But the odd thing is that art seems to also happen outside the official corridors. The ambition for art doesn’t always aim at the ‘art game’ that seems to define some professionalized ideas about it. Amazing photographers have been discovered with troves of previously unseen work. Poets have kept their poems hidden in drawers and random boxes in closets. Novelists have written obsessively for their own benefit and never shown their work to people beyond close family. Painters have been consumed by painting and yet never sold enough (or cared to sell enough) to keep them from starving……..

The point being that the ambition for art is sometimes less about the infrastructure of the arts game, its rules and its police, and occasionally more about the work itself, that the person is trying their best to do their best, is exploring the fruits of their unique imagination and perspective on the world, and that they are driven by the need to see where all this expression is going.

It doesn’t necessarily ‘make one an artist’ that we can sell a piece or two. The ideal of a professional can’t be what hangs us up. What makes us artists is that we care enough about our practice that it simply needs to get done. The ambition to be an artist isn’t always the ambition to be a ‘professional’ who makes their livelihood doing it. Its not just the ambition to get hung in a gallery, entombed on a pedestal. Its not simply the ambition to look up the official definition of ‘art’ and do that. Sure, that’s one great way to do it. That specific ambition can be rightly honored. But it isn’t necessary.

Nor is it the only way of doing things. Art happens all around us. It doesn’t need the sanctioning of gatekeepers. The ambition for art is more about who we are and what we want to leave behind for the world. Its the ambition to change the world by expressing ourselves. Artists express themselves creatively. This is the ambition behind what we do. It pours out from the hidden corners of our being. And we don’t need people to listen, necessarily. At the very least the small corner of the world we inhabit has changed. If we are doing the best we can, then we ourselves have changed.

Something I always try to tell my students is that the pottery projects they are working on are all very interesting, but the real project they have is to mold themselves into better creators: The real project they are working on is themselves.

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Pollock

Does that sound like something we can get behind? Forget the destiny of individual art objects: What is more important is what happens to us. That, my friends, seems to be the real ambition for art: Discover who we are as thinking creating beings. Discover it through learning better how to express ourselves. If we do that right, how can we not end up with art?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 5 Comments

Intention is for Amateurs

What if Chuck Close had said this (just one word’s difference):

Intention is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”

…………………. Intention is for amateurs. That actually works in this quote, doesn’t it? All the many reasons why Chuck thought ‘inspiration’ was creatively inadequate are just as powerful in dismissing the importance of ‘intention’. You don’t need it to make work. You just get on with your business. You let the work take care of itself. You discover your directions just by showing up and taking those first few steps. You don’t need an intention to land on some specific place to get there or anywhere else. The specific intention is unnecessary. The doing is the important thing, not the intending. Chuck wasn’t disowning every manifestation of inspiration. He was just saying that you don’t need it. The same seems to go for intention.

And yet I keep hearing from artists that intention is supposed to make the difference. I’m not saying that it doesn’t make a difference, just as I would never say that inspiration is to be universally scoffed at. But does it make THE difference…..?

For instance, what I keep hearing is that we intend fine art in some way differently than we intend non-fine art. As in, “the intentions behind this painting are obviously different than the intentions behind this piece of pottery.” The case that is so often being made is that this fundamental difference in intentions is in essence what discriminates pottery and other non-fine art from the truly fine art. And maybe if you look at a painting on the wall of a museum and a mug in someone’s sink you’d have to say that the painter never intended his painting to hold beverages and need an occasional scrubbing. And you might say that the potter never intended his mug to have a gilt frame and be hung on some austere wall with a spotlight on it. When you look at it that way it seems so very obvious…..

But intention doesn’t really answer anything about the object itself. We don’t categorically intend different objects in different ways. Intention is a slippery customer. We can intend bloody well anything we can imagine. Intention is not limited to the way things stand. Its not limited to reality as we perceive it. In fact, an artist’s intention is almost always to take the world and make it different. To intend the world as something other than it currently is. Not just to reproduce it in the same form, but to take raw materials and give it a new form. To paint what has never been painted before, to sculpt where no artist has sculpted before. If intention is all it takes, then why not mugs-in-museums?

Duchamp showed that this is not so inconceivable when he put his ‘fountain’ on a pedestal. If we can intend a urinal-as-art surely we can make the jump to other unconventional objects?

The point being that we are often merely bewitched by our conventions. We can’t see the world as easily without them, so it is difficult to imagine things like pots on pedestals. But that isn’t the fault of pottery. There are pots on pedestals already. Rather, one urinal seems to weigh more in the minds of some folks than the entire output of working potters. We don’t believe their intentions could remotely connect up with the lofty intentions of an artist like Duchamp, or even run of the mill ‘conventional’ artists using traditional media. Its as if there exists a fundamental intentional non-sequitur between a thing that quite possibly has utilitarian function and what belongs in museums. Its as if what belongs (potentially) in a dish drain could never be intended to belong in a museum. When you look at the world in a certain way we can’t even bridge that gap in intentions. Its as if we are being told that it is psychologically impossible to intend both ‘function’ and ‘art’ at once. It seems inconceivable…….

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But as I’ve already said, intentions are slippery customers. They slide out from under us and we sometimes find that where we are now standing has nothing to do with what we intended.

Enter the world of serendipity. Which, if you think about it, has almost always been an important weapon in the artist’s arsenal. Take Pablo Picasso’s word on it, for example:

“I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.”

So bugger all intention. If what Picasso suggests is generally true, then artists’ intentions between different work almost never can be the same. One artist over the course of his or her lifetime will have an enormous variety of intentions. None of which seemed to matter in the end, really.

Intention is often what holds us back. We can get bogged down in intending uninteresting things. Repeating ourselves. We can let what we already know be the final word on our destination. We can get too comfortable with the ‘brilliant’ ideas that occupy our minds and not venture into the unfamiliar territory to see what else is out there. Or, as Chuck Close puts it, its the idea that “things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt.” Intention really is for amateurs.

Just ask any person with substance abuse issues who has tried to quit. The intention to quit and quitting are not the same thing. Intention is for amateurs. If you put your faith in intention alone it will get you nowhere. There will be moments when your intention slips and you want to take just a sip. For old times’ sake. F-ck that! You sometimes need to do certian things regardless of what your intentions are. Ignore your intentions. It might be better to intend it in some cases, but you can’t build your house just on intentions. A gentle breeze can blow most intentions from their perch. “Oh I meant to feed your pets when you were gone, but something always came up. Oops! Sorry!”

So keep your intentions. Nurture them if you must. Just don’t tell me that intending something ‘as art’ is what makes it different from ‘non-art’. And I intend to rule the world one day! Bwa ha ha ha ha!

Is it any wonder there is a suspicion that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes much of the time? The intention that what we’ve got going on is somehow ‘special’ doesn’t make it special. Not when your junk is dangling in the street and the sun is baking that uncovered non-crown-wearing cabeza that you proffer to the world as a testament to your glory. Cover that sh-t up! We don’t necessarily want to look at your ‘intentions’. Intentions are for amateurs……

I’m not saying all intention is irrelevant. Just don’t hang your hat on it……… The road to Hell is paved with Good intentions, after all. Having the right intention doesn’t mean that you aren’t still making a mess of things. The world and its intentions simply don’t always add up in that congenial a way.

Well, that’s one side of the story, at least. Of course I intended this in the nicest way possible  :) . I hope everyone enjoyed reading it!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

Go ahead, intend beauty. Repeat after me: “Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

;)

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 12 Comments

The moral decay of art through a soccer lens

In the Holy book it is written: “Thus it was and thus it shall ever be….”

You can always understand why people want to preserve the things that matter to them. Its not unreasonable to want stability and a continuation of values. Change can be upsetting. It often represents a threat to what you consider important. Its a challenge to what you think matters. In the world of the conservative mind its almost always either/or and hardly ever both at once. Purity at the cost of isolation. Separate but ‘equal’ (wink wink). Its the attitude that builds walls to keep out the undesirables. It faces forwards by looking back. It leans into the future by embracing the past. But real change is coming. And some minds are incapable of dealing with it…..

Take, for instance, that spark of conservative wit, Ann Coulter. In a recent opinion piece she vents something she’s been holding back for literally ten whole years. She’s kept it inside for that long but has finally had enough. She’s watched the growing fascination of her fellow Americans with this foreign ‘soccer’ clap trap and she’s fed up. Here’s what she has to say:

“If more “Americans” are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.

I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade — or about the length of the average soccer game — so as not to offend anyone. But enough is enough. Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”

Well, that about sums it up, right? Unless, of course, you remember that ‘soccer’ was supposedly invented in jolly olde England in the mid 19th century, perhaps a bit after Coulter’s stalwart kilt wearing forebear himself made that fateful trip to these distant shores as an unwashed and hapless immigrant, though certainly before the many noble grandfathers she speaks of. But don’t let facts get in the way of opinions. She, like many others, feels strongly about the perceived threat to her American ideals and won’t let simple truth stand in the way of something so important.

It doesn’t matter that the fathers and mothers of these venerable grandfathers were probably kicking balls on the decks of ships as they made their tortured journey to the Land of Freedom and Dignity For All. Except that immigration now isn’t exactly what it once was. Freedom these days is for those as have it and dignity stops well short of those as have not. A handy convenience of the conservative mind: Keep things nice and tidy. Preserve the status quo (as long as it favors ‘us’). Keep the rabble out. Close the gates in their faces…….

And the deliciously ignored irony is that the Glorious Heritage so obtusely offered up as worth conserving actually makes immigrants of us all. How delightful! But how understandable too…..

‘Cultural purity’ is an ideal that prioritizes the rights and privileges of the haves more often than it endorses (or even endures) the equality of the have nots. If it ever does. That’s its single priority, when you get down to brass tacks: Keep the right people in charge. And it takes on institutional urgency as those in power are inevitably reluctant to relinquish their grip on control. Certain accepted values get pushed to the forefront with the conviction of celestial authority and others are indiscriminately discriminated against. And as Coulter points out, in the system of values that puts itself as the only ‘right way’ of doing things, any slippage to unsanctioned priorities is a sure sign of moral decay.

So what does this have to do with art? Our actions reflect the belief that these are the things worth saving. Sometimes this means that competing values in art come under scrutiny, and if some things don’t ‘measure up, well that’s surely also evidence of moral decay. Save what’s worth saving. Burn all the rest…..

Queue the film The Monument Men. The historically accurate plot points to just how motivated both the Nazis and the Allies were in preserving ‘high culture’. I’m sure most of us are aware of the savage theft of art from occupied territories and the looting and confiscations from an entire generation of holocaust and war victims.

“At the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, surrounding European governments began to recognize a cultural threat and scrambled to safeguard their national collections. Almost all modern art of the early to mid-twentieth century was labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime and banned; most notoriously, the Nazis put on a degenerate art exhibition in Munich in 1937 to showcase the art they found so offensively “un-German.” Any degenerate art seized by the Nazis was either sold at auction or destroyed. The next course of action for Hitler’s government was to identify all major works of art existing in Europe that were deemed to be of German origin, and move progressively to capture them so that they might be restored to their rightful homeland. They were also after classical masterpieces for Hitler’s fantasy museum in Linz, Austria, which was to be home to what he deemed the world’s finest art. Interestingly, a large part of the artworks looted from museum and larger private collections were taken under the premise of “protecting” them; the Nazis wanted to bring these timeless works under the wing of their self-proclaimed “superior” culture.” Kate Haveles from her essay ‘The greatest heist of all time’

General Eisenhower inspects stolen art in Merkerse salt mine, 1945. Courtesy of National Archives.

General Eisenhower inspects stolen art in Merkerse salt mine, 1945. Courtesy of National Archives.

The Nazis pretended to know a thing or two about cultural purity. The ideals of preserving a specific value in culture are a form of certainty. Its a certainty which divides the world between good and bad, extraordinary and common. It also plays out along the lines of power and resources, ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The entitled almost always label the things falling outside its criteria as ‘degenerate’, ‘immoral’, ‘shallow’, ‘impure’, ‘heathen’, ‘poor’, and a host of other derogatory labels that are easy to imagine. A culturally conservative mindset will always classify its own values as superior to what it doesn’t understand or appreciate. Museums, where these relics are often housed, become mausoleums of cultural purity, artifacts of ‘The Best mankind has to offer’.

And there is nothing wrong with these high watermarks of culture themselves. The traditional cannons of art have an important historical role that continues to this day. They can act as signposts for a society. In some cases its not merely hold over, but a vibrant continuing tradition. Its not always dead relics the public makes pilgrimages to see, but often also thriving unfolding practices. Opera may have little in common with Hip Hop today, but that’s not a slight on either. Graffiti may have little in common with Renaissance painting but that isn’t stopping enlightened and progressive museums from giving it a proper place in their show schedules. The democratization of art and culture has lent itself to the idea of the niche rather than a cultural good that stands for all.

Howard the Duck, Lee Quiõnes, 1988. Courtesy MCNY.

Howard the Duck, Lee Quiõnes, 1988. Courtesy MCNY.

No, there is nothing wrong with the specific values that conservatism in art promotes. In a multicultural pluralistic world there should be room for most everything. Only, the bigotry that denies importance to values that are in conflict seems both unnecessary and suspiciously self interested. Rather than the harmony of upstairs and downstairs working to common ends we get champions of one at the expense of the other. The feeling that it has to be either/or and not both is the problem. There is nothing humble about advocating superiority, and there is nothing remotely empathetic. Denying other people’s values is an affront as well as a form of psychic violence.

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.” Simon Critchley from ‘The dangers of certainty

That’s something to chew on, at least……

And if you aren’t watching the World Cup you are missing something really special! I’ve been glued to the TV and computer seemingly for days and have only missed a few games. And, believe it or not, one of my great great great great….. grandfathers was even on the the Mayflower, to hear the family history told. Put that in your pipe, Ann Coulter, and smoke it.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 3 Comments

The World Cup and your art

My friend Scott Cooper linked me to an article the other day that touched off another of our far ranging discussions. I sometimes think I should just scrap the blog posts you get and simply post the conversations that Scott and I have.

So anyway, Scott saw this article in the BBC about the psychology of world class athletes and how it relates to everyday activities. Link here. The article makes this case:

Intelligence involves using conscious deliberation at the right level to optimally control your actions. Driving a car is easier because you don’t have to think about the physics of the combustion engine, and it’s also easier because you no longer have to think about the movements required to change gear or turn on the indicators. But just because driving a car relies on automatic skills like these, doesn’t mean that you’re mindless when driving a car. The better drivers, just like the better footballers, are making more choices each time they show off their talents, not fewer.

So footballer’s immense skills aren’t that different from many everyday things we do like walking, talking or driving a car. We’ve practiced these things so much we don’t have to think about how we’re doing them. We may even not pay much attention to what we’re doing, or have much of a memory for them (ever reached the end of a journey and realised you don’t recall a single thing about the trip?), but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t or couldn’t. In fact, because we have practiced these skills we can deploy them at the same time as other things (walking and chewing gum, talking while tying our shoe laces, etc). This doesn’t diminish their mystery, but it does align it with the central mystery of psychology – how we learn to do anything.

The point being that while these skills and aptitudes may vary in degree, they are similar in kind. What makes things work for athletes is not so different from what makes things work in other facets of our lives. Art and sport, in fact seem fundamentally connected in some of these aspects. For instance, I always try to get my students to understand that what they do as artists at a potter’s wheel is not so different from what they may be doing playing tennis, kicking a soccer ball, or even performing dance. There is an obvious connection in motor skills, sensitivity and physical intelligence. Potters need to hone their body knowledge and develop sophistication with their hands: Positioning, anticipation, responding to subtle cues, technique, and problem solving are things that both artists and athletes know intimately.

And what about the role of ‘luck’ and risk? Part of my response to Scott went like this:

“The Dutch will need to get very lucky to win this tournament, but so far no one else is playing better than them consistently. They don’t always look good, but seem to be clinical when it counts most.

And maybe that holds true for us as artists? That its better to be lucky when its needed than simply ‘good enough’? Remember that survivorship bias article that suggests we need to put ourselves in the position where there is enough random chance that the odds of something good happening are multiplied?

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“Wiseman speculated that what we call luck is actually a pattern of behaviors that coincide with a style of understanding and interacting with the events and people you encounter throughout life. Unlucky people are narrowly focused, he observed. They crave security and tend to be more anxious, and instead of wading into the sea of random chance open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation, on seeking a specific goal. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by. Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences. Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people. The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.”

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The teams in the tournament that are predictable seem to face the greatest odds, because they can be countered by appropriate measures taken. In a game where you sometimes only need to score once to win you can sometimes take the outrageous chances, and when they pay off that’s all you need. Its sometimes worth failing outrageously if it occasionally puts you in a position to exceed predictability.

Its hard for me to say what kind of soccer my art would translate into. I have reasonable technique, not great but generally more than adequate. My imagination is decent but not as fearless as I’d like it to be. My execution could definitely be better. I’m not as invested on the outcomes enough to qualify as world class. I’m still essentially making sketches, so for that aspect of my ‘game’ I’d say I was still probably out playing pick-up on the local field. But I would say that my eye is pretty good. And I’m not a plodder with my nose to the grindstone. I’m trying to look up as I’ve got the ball at my feet. I don’t mind changing directions in mid-stride, of attempting the daring and possibly foolish for the breakthrough chance at glory.

To add more weight to this idea of taking risks here’s a commencement speech Daniel Pink just gave this year:

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And an excerpt of what he said:

“Sometimes you have to write to figure it out…

This advice wasn’t just savvy guidance for how to write — it might be the wisest advice I know for how to live… The way to be okay, we all believe, is to have a specific plan — except may it’s not…

The smartest, most interesting, most dynamic, most impactful people … lived to figure it out. At some point in their lives, they realized that carefully crafted plans … often don’t hold up… Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.

This might sound risky — and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity. The greater risk is to fear failure more than mediocrity. The greater risk is to pursue a path only because it’s the first path you decided to pursue.

Now those are words we can all live by, not just as artists and athletes.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 4 Comments

Apologies for art

Someone needs to apologize. I mean it. Because its clear that things aren’t going smoothly and someone’s obviously to blame. The works are gummed up and the sheets are soiled. Some miscreant has just tracked mud through the clean kitchen floor. And if we ask the folks who are in charge its quite obvious who the guilty are. Just look at this list of complaints that galleries have about artists. How much inconsiderate behavior are galleries supposed to put up with, really? (From an online e-course designed to straighten artists out)

The 6 Most Common Mistakes Artists Make When Approaching Galleries

Mistake #1: Presenting an inconsistent body of work.

Mistake #2: Producing insufficient work to sustain gallery sales.

Mistake #3: Delivering a portfolio in a format inconvenient for gallery review.

Mistake #4: Lacking confidence and consistency in pricing.

Mistake #5: Approaching the wrong galleries.

Mistake #6: Submitting art through the wrong channels.

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Well, well, well…. Isn’t that just horrifying?

Its simply galling what artists try to get away with! Stubborn willful artists simply can’t be trusted to play by the rules. Don’t they know that doing things ‘the right way’ is for their own good? They get it wrong and spoil it for the rest of us. How utterly selfish! Just think of the mind numbing back breaking inconvenience to those kindly angelic gallery owners. Its a wonder most galleries are content to only take 50% of sales and not more, just for the sake of principle.

If artists are responsibly adult enough about it they had better get down on their knees and apologize. Beg forgiveness for the inconvenience they cause. Its simply unconscionable that artists try pulling a fast one and do things the way they want. Without any consideration or sensitivity to the difficulty this causes the galleries! As if artists are entitled to some say. As if what they wanted actually mattered. Preposterous! Oh the temerity of it!

So there’s a system in place. If you want to play the game these are the rules. Is that so hard to understand? There are no other rules. There is no other game. If you don’t want to play you can pack up your toys and run home to your mommy and have a good cry. “Poor me! Nobody understands me!” Boo hoo…….

One of the biggest offenses in recent times has been artists trying to pedal pots as legitimate art. What are they thinking?! Isn’t it obvious that pottery is NOT art? Just look at it. I mean, its three dimensional but its not sculptural. And if its got an interesting surface its still not as important as something like painting. Even if the pots were painted on isn’t it obvious that pots are not paintings? Sure, paint murals on the walls of buildings, scraps of tin, old boards and newsprint. Those are things we properly revere and shine the limelight on. Just don’t think that you can do something ‘interesting’ on the side of a pot and call it “Art”…….

I mean, we can’t sell mugs in Art galleries. Galleries have to pay the bills, don’t they? Selling mugs hardly supports the Art business. You’d have to sell two-hundred and twenty-five $40 mugs just to cover one of these $9,000 sculptures.

Dan McCarthy’s untitled “face pots”, numbers 56 and 78, 2013 and 2014 respectively, at Anton Kern (2.1/J10)

Dan McCarthy’s untitled “face pots”, numbers 56 and 78, 2013 and 2014 respectively, at Anton Kern (2.1/J10)

Thank the heavenly muses that these are not ordinary pots! I mean, they might look like pots, but the price tag alone should tell you that the right people have seen it and determined that this is art and not pottery. If someone stuck some dried flowers in one of these the price would simply plummet. People would be confused. “Is it art? Or am I supposed to use it as an ashtray?” It would be like using the Mona Lisa as a placemat at Wendy’s. You just don’t make art work. Its not supposed to do anything. And for too long ceramic sculpture has been tainted by its associations with sweaty humble usable pots. Thankfully, as Alison Jacques (owner of the Alison Jacques Gallery) says, “Ceramic was once seen as pottery. Now it’s contemporary art.” Praise be! Glad we cleared that up.

Isn’t it obvious why mere pottery is inferior to these magnificent and engaging, erm… sculptures? No collector in their right mind would be willing to get saddled with a few dozen of even the finest mugs (let alone several hundred) if they can get their hands on one of these superlative creations instead. And its the gallery owner’s business to tell them that. For their own good. Sometimes these collectors don’t know what they are looking at so you have to lead them through the different things to care about. Pottery? Blah. Seen it all before. Not interested. There is nothing much about pots to draw the attention of Art galleries. If you could pay them to be interested that would be another matter…..

But pots don’t sell for much. Why would they? 50% 0f $40 simply isn’t enough for the time it would take to argue a mug’s worth to some collector. Galleries actually lose money selling pots….. One 4′ x 6′ panel on a wall is more profitable with a painting in it than 12,000 square feet of gallery space crammed with pedestals filled with pots. Think about it. What Art gallery in their right mind would show pots when they could slap a few paintings on the wall and a few sculptures on pedestals?

Dead artists, on the other hand, are always a potential for vogue, and even dead potters can take on a relative sheen of glamour. That’s it, potters! Hurry up and die. We’ll make you famous then! Wink wink! Six feet of cold hard earth is just about the only thing that can enhance the reputation of potters in an Art market…..

So either get out your hankies and have a good cry or make something other than pottery. And if you are stuck on making pots just know that your stubborn refusal to bow down to the way the Art game is played is insulting to the folks who are in charge. It questions their authority and pretends they don’t know what they are talking about. If you are a potter or some other misbehaving artist you had better apologize and make things right. Make the right things, in other words…. Don’t you feel better now? You can dust off your knees. Lets hope that didn’t hurt too much.

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I hope everyone knows this is a parody of how serious the art industry sometimes genuinely seems to take itself. Some gallerists actually are angelic, and not every gallery scoffs at pots. There is a pervasive mythology, however, and the unwitting can often be easily seduced by it. Galleries themselves often align on either side of the perceived division between ‘Art’ and pottery. Keeping these things distinct in space only perpetuates keeping them distinct in our minds.

But if the world is slowly changing artists and potters in particular need to learn to stick up for themselves. Its too often accepted that we will simply bow down to the browbeatings we receive against our self interest and the interest of our art. We often behave like the victims of kidnappings who develop sympathetic and protective feelings for their captors, a twisted art version of the Stockholm Syndrome. If anyone needs to apologize for the way things stand I’m not so sure its artists.

Its almost like we were involved in a mugging and are being blamed for the inconvenience we give to the muggers…. We’ve got what they want, or if we don’t we’d better get our sh-t together. That’s the way this game seems to work. And artists are often eager to play because they don’t know any better. We can’t see outside the cage that has been constructed for us. And artists see the few examples who have made it, scored the big pay out. Is it any wonder poor artists want the big score too?

But the system is rigged. If reputation is what sells not everyone can be put forth as deserving. Its not and never will be a level playing field as things stand. But artists persist in this wishful thinking. Its almost like poor people voting for tax cuts to the rich because they hold the dream of one day owning the big mansions and fancy cars….. Its this dream that helps struggling artists line up for their institutional beatings and suffer the indignities with hardly a complaint.

That seems worth thinking about: If the system itself is corrupt, unfairly biased, or disadvantageous to all but a few, who exactly is it that needs to apologize? The 99% or the 1%?

Peace all!

Make beauty real! (Only you can)

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Posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery | 19 Comments

Clean living, I suppose…..

I must be doing something right.

A few days ago Ben Carter posted the interview he conducted with me from about a month ago. When Ben first contacted me I was thrilled that he wanted to sit down and divert his Red Clay Rambling into the thicket and morass of an Athens style Overkill Gillies Rambling. Thrilled and terrified! I completely trusted Ben to provide the solid foundation for our conversation but I wasn’t confident I could build the necessary scaffolding, framing, and detail work on top of that.

I enjoyed our conversation, but had reservations that my warbling voice and occasional stumbles would negate any good I brought to my half of the conversation. It turns out Ben is as good an editor as he is the conductor of interviews. Maybe even better. The way he smoothed out the rough edges I know for a fact were in the original recording turned the chaos of an actual conversation into a well polished presentation.

me the interviewee

Credit to Ben for not only doing this podcasting so well, but for the service he does to the clay community in making a record of what folks working in our field are thinking. There are so many thoughtful clay artists out there whose experience and perspective shed light on our own path. Putting their thoughts on record in this conversational format is long overdue. And Ben does a remarkable job of leading the conversations into interesting topics. I still find it hard to believe that I am now in the company of the many talented clay artists that Ben has recorded.

If you are not familiar with Ben’s podcasts you should go back and listen to as many as possible. The list of artists he has interviewed is truly astounding. And support what he does if you can. His Kickstarter campaign has just launched. Help support this incredible pottery resource:

http://carterpottery.blogspot.com/2014/06/check-out-tales-of-red-clay-rambler.html

Peace all!

Carter

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Posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 12 Comments

The future of pottery

There was a time when I first started this blog that I used to spend moaning about the disappearance of pottery classes from Universities. Not all, of course, just as a perceptible trend. Departments downsizing, hiring sculptors to replace potters, not admitting potters to grad programs, having non potters teach wheel classes to beginners……. It is a depressing picture if you think about it.

Not that pottery won’t survive, just that fewer folks will have access to a decent education about it. Fewer folks may even be exposed to it in a serious context. It doesn’t seem like a consequence-free trend……

I teach in a community arts setting, and folks there are often quite engaged with what they are doing. The students who really want to make it a part of their lives go to heroic lengths to make that happen. I can’t applaud them enough, and I’m willing to go above and beyond what I am getting paid for to make it possible for them.

But the interesting thing is that very many of the folks who walk through the doors where I teach already have some exposure to pot making from some previous part of their lives. Many folks took classes in high school or in college. Some had decent art programs in grade school. There have been generations who were generously exposed to the arts in their classrooms. If you think about the majority of really good potters, all but a few will have taken classes as potters for at least some of their formal education. But opportunity for that seems to be more rare these days…….

The thing I was fearing most was that these sorts of opportunities are steadily diminishing. I could only see the doom and gloom of my worst imaginings. And I knew that if you just look at the success stories you will only ever get a rosy tinted picture. Sure, some Universities still do a marvelous job teaching it. Can we draw any necessary conclusions from that? Do we mistake the forest for the trees? There are increasing opportunities for apprentices. That’s a great thing! But is this a sample size with any chance of replacing the extent and breadth in education potters had from dwindling academic settings? Does a casual community class always challenge students in the same way as having strict homework assignments and the accountability of grades? For me its almost impossible to make that case, except in rare circumstances. Most folks who attend classes at community centers are not trying to figure out the path of their lives as much as they are finding the diversion of a possible hobby. And there is nothing wrong with that….

Its simply obvious the shape of the field is changing. Nothing wrong with that unless we are bogged down in some rigid conservatism of the ‘Golden Age’. But where are we headed? Have we adequately considered the issue of its sustainability?

Well, you can’t say these alternatives are hopeless, but they don’t really solve the entire issue of pottery moving forward. They are obviously part of the puzzle, though. No denying that. The key, however, is that in all these instances of possibility the idea of pottery was already something that people took seriously. You don’t commit to three years of apprenticeship without believing in the value of making pots. You don’t even take a noncredit night class without having a good idea that making pots will be fun. Or that having something made by hand to bring home is a great thing. The issue I am pointing out is that each of these alternatives rests on a foundation where the value of pottery is already accepted. Its a question of how we think of ourselves and how we understand the world. But how did we get there? How do we make the healthy survival of art not moot?

They don’t offer classes in shopping at Walmart, after all…. They don’t need to. We are brought up as consumers, and passively accepting the creativity of other people is second nature to us by the time we are young adults. Doesn’t that tell us a bit about the training of people growing up in today’s world? Doesn’t it say something profound about the odds that are stacked against the active participatory arts? Which is so fundamentally strange, because we all grew up as natural artists……

Is it weird that I get real tears in my eyes every time I see this scene? (I am a sap, if you didn’t already know that, but this just rips my heart open every time….)

So what am I advocating here? Surely not that we all grow up fighting to remain Peter Pan? No, but art has to stay somewhere safe for it to thrive. It needs to be encouraged, nurtured, and it needs a foundation. Whither that?

Well, what I see as the Starting Point of the Future of Pottery, the future of art, is that folks grow up respecting and appreciating these things. That’s as good a starting place as I can imagine. You can’t guarantee it will last, but the more you make a space in peoples’ hearts for an activity or thing the likelier they will have the chance to remember it and pursue it as they move forward. Unless society crushes their creativity from them, which too often can seem inevitable…. Where exactly do we take a stand against that?

On as many fronts as possible is how I’d answer.

As we grow up we find that more and more the further we go we have reasons to make up our minds about the world. We get ‘evidence’ that some things matter and others don’t. We decide. We commit. Its not just the outside pressures and expectations but our own habits in confronting the world. There are accretions of our actions, and our feet so often find the well worn trails. We build in some directions but not others. We are complicit in how things shake out for us. The things we have done and thought become a part of who we are. We are encased in a mantle of what we have experienced and how we have felt about it…..

Of course we can change, but so much of our mental and physical lives are spent reinforcing the things we are already familiar with. We inhabit a loose affiliation of things that matter to us. And it often takes extraordinary effort to break the patterns of our lives. So much seems to point us in the direction of repeating ourselves. Laziness, familiarity, accrued psychological disposition, the confirmation bias and all other motivated reasoning…. (And if you think about it, these are all the reasons brand advertising seems to work so powerfully on us. Does that suggest something notable about the course of our lives and the influence lines of manipulation?) The odds are simply stacked against radical and rapid ephemeral changes. Our lives turn away from unpredictability with an assurance that fairly reeks of engineering. Stability and conformity DO matter to us. We build it into our lives at almost every turn.

The question, then, is if some sort of stability is inevitable, to what do we conform? Can we do a better job of planting the right seeds and nurturing the right growth? What values do we put forth as a locus to build stability around? We’re not living in a fantasy of completely chaotic and untethered free will. Are we?

My thought is that we make a home for art in the world by helping people grow up with art as a part of their lives. No guarantees, of course, and there is no rule against picking it up much later in life. But it seems that IF you start out in life understanding where respect and appreciation come from, you will have a much less difficult time remembering it later in life. When, for instance, the chips are down and you are being hemmed in by other pressures and the need for external adult commitments.

It becomes a choice for us by already being available to us. We are offered art in our future simply as a point of stability in our personal values. Not as some radical departure, but the continuation of who we are. Our self-identity. We make it a preference. Art survives because we remember that art has a place in our lives. We make a place for art in the world by believing in art.

If art is an acquired taste, from where exactly do we acquire it? Interacting with art is a habit that we can let define us the more we invest in it, the more we explore it. The only way to love art is to become invested in it…..

So I try my best to get real pottery in the hands of young (and potential) art enthusiasts. As young as I can get ‘em. If they have the experience of caring that the next meal they eat will be from this handmade piece of pottery, how powerful is that? That’s the question this discussion hinges on. And from where I am sitting I can only see one real answer: Of course it is merely one of the competing values they will grow up with, but if its already there, at least its in contention.

And valuing a piece of pottery isn’t necessarily just about pots. There are more global lessons to be learned by making a place for pottery in one’s life. Its sometimes also about handmade items, about creativity, about imagination, about art in general, museums and public creative works, and its significantly also about their own involvement with these things. Which is why we so often find that our fellow artists are kindred spirits, after all. A person who is sensitive to beauty in paintings may have more capacity (or training) for discovering it in their everyday surroundings and in other creative manifestations.

The more we pay attention to these things the more we are tuned in that way. Its like learning a new language (or anything really): The more we use it the more it becomes part of how we express ourselves. It is the people who have a hard time finding these things who are more truly lost to art. Its not an affinity for them. The don’t ‘speak the language’ yet. Or they have forgotten. Whichever, they don’t have a home for it in their lives. They have very little foundation to build on…. But appreciate one art form and you will have at least potentially opened the gateway to other possible extensions of the human imagination. Doesn’t that just make sense?

Which leaves me. How do I deal with this issue? I seem to care what happens, but what do I DO about it?

Well, each year I devote a large portion of my pot making to smaller sized versions of my pottery that fit small hands and belly sizes. I make pots FOR kids specifically. And I put small adult prices on them to start with, but then I give them to kid customers at half off that already ridiculously low price. Kids can get their mugs for anywhere between $5-$8. There is nothing kids sized I put out that would cost them more than $10. Which makes it cheap enough that parents aren’t discouraged by its higher probability of a short life (the younger they are increasing the incidence of mishap). Why not put inexpensive art in the hands of your children? Things they will truly cherish and which may help them make sense of the creative world as they grow older?

My hope is that these questions still matter to enough parents regardless of whether their own lives have retained the opportunity for serious creative expression. If you believe in art, how do you make it available to your children? I’m trying to give one possible answer to that……

Here’s what I mean:

Some neighbors add to their supply of handmade cups and bowls, and a potter friend and his family get their kids started on some kid sized mugs.

Some neighbors add to their supply of handmade cups and bowls, and a potter friend and his family get their kids started on some kid sized mugs.

Some young ladies who grow up in a home that already appreciates pottery get their first opportunity to have their very own pots to drink and eat from. They were very excited by this prospect!

Some young ladies who grow up in a home that already appreciates pottery get their first opportunity to have their very own pots to drink and eat from. They were very excited by this prospect!

How can I look at these kids and not feel I am doing the right thing? Even if it costs me money to do, in the long run? Isn’t it easy to believe that the future of pottery is in good hands?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 10 Comments