Letter to a young potter

“So I only made one piece I liked in my pottery class & I’m pretty sure I put it on my cars roof and drove home. Hum…So much for that one.”

This popped up in my fb feed from a friend and former student. It seemed worth a response. Here is what I said (typically bloated in my inimitable CGPB ramblin’ way ;) ):

Only one? Either you were not very productive or you are being very very hard on yourself. I wish you had stayed more during class that one time you had signed up with me. It seems we never had much opportunity to talk about things like this. To me the tragedy is not that a pot got broken, even the one you liked the best, but that there was only one pot that you liked. The real misfortune was perhaps in place long before you drove off…….

The danger I sometimes see, if I can presume in your case, is that it is not important enough to you that you like what you are doing. That’s the tricky part of holding one’s self to high standards: The eventual reward of standards are always in competition with the immediate rewards of the process. You can’t always have both at once. And if you can its because you took the long road to figuring out how this was possible. My suggestion is that there is more to making pots than how well we aim or even having the right things to aim for. Especially as we are staring out on that road. We have to have other reasons for traveling it than that we are pointing in the right direction……

In my experience there are also ways of working that focus on making more of the things you like, and ways of working that focus on liking more of the things you make. Liking the road we are traveling seems like a decent reason for being on it. And each of these exercises sometimes requires that we give up the ideas that we feel comfortable with. Your convictions about what you are doing can’t be allowed to stand in the way of finding things outside your normal comfort zone. The road isn’t always a straight line, and we can’t always see beyond the next curve to know what we will get.

Sometimes enjoyment of the process and the things you make will only come to you as a surprise. Just like in reading a book or watching a film, the ending isn’t always what we anticipate. And to get there we sometimes need to learn to suspend our disbelief, suspend our beliefs too, so that we may come to see things from a different perspective. To travel the road to its end we can’t always be the person we thought we were. Sometimes our own ideals stand in the way. Our inexperience stands in the way. Sometimes we have to unlearn the biases that limit us. Or, sometimes we need to understand those biases, where they come from and why they seem to stick with us. And then we can set them aside, when needed, and maintain them when they are actually helping us. And that difference can be hard to decipher…..

Sometimes its like we want to run a marathon and we won’t settle for anything less than that. Nothing else measures up. We are mesmerized by a single notion of excellence. The problem is that we are not always in a position to run marathons. We think we should be able, but we haven’t considered that there is a short term view and a long term view. To eventually run a marathon you can’t just head out the door and be disappointed by every 5 miles you are only able to run. 5 miles is actually good if it is part of the path that will eventually take you to 26.2. The trick is to see where you are at the moment and respect that.

Don’t think you necessarily should be farther along the path than you are. Seeing the finish line is sometimes easy, and that can actually deceive us about the real path to our goal. The getting there is the difficult part, and the apparent ease of our vision is only frustrated by the physical handicaps of the journey itself. Seeing the bullseye doesn’t always mean we are prepared to hit it. We simply haven’t accounted for all the hidden and undiscovered things that are involved in eventually crossing that line.

Which often leads us to frustration. Frustration can be tiring. And if we don’t learn to love or appreciate the steps along the way we may never have the fortitude to reach our final destination.……… Don’t love your work only because of how close it was to your aim. Love what you are doing itself. The process should also be rewarding, no strings attached. And perhaps love each pot because it may be better than the last. If you are improving this difference alone should be important to you. But also love each pot because it may be worse than what will come after, and this was necessary……

Because, unless you take this same awkward step and stumble occasionally you will never get where you are going. The destination is not reached just by unequivocal triumphs but by the missteps we must endure to get there. We are not ushered to the finish line amidst blaring trumpets and cheering crowds. We get there the hard way. We get there by taking a path through the rubble of mistakes and the dubious charms of might-have-beens and also-rans. If there is a symphony waiting for us at the end it sounds nothing like the glossy finished product while we are getting there…..

Cherish those steps for what they are. But also learn to see that there may not really be an end point you will reach. The goal that drove you, it turns out, may in fact be an illusion. Illusory? It may be an unnecessary part of the journey. The need to cross that particular finish line may have dwindled in the rear view as you take different turns that lead to other places. And if we won’t always get where we think we are driving, the question is whether where we think we are driving was all that important to begin with.

So, as you learn to step more confidently you will not just close the gap toward your original destination: You will also see new opportunities to get off the path and explore in different directions. As you gain the skills for moving through the work you will come to understand that the work actually wasn’t really the important thing. Not the physical stuff you made. Rather, the important thing was that you now have the ability and freedom to go where you will. What you have changed is not simply the steps you are able to take but the person taking those steps. By changing yourself you have changed what you can now see. And from this different vantage the terrain can seem drastically different from what it used to look like. There are unexpected mountains to climb and unforeseen streams to cross. These are the surprises we are faced with, and they can seem ever so much more interesting than the ideas we first started out with. And you can now do those things because you are not the person you once were. You are now an artist, not merely a maker of objects.

The transition will be hard to spot, but if you keep at it long enough and keep touch with sustaining reasons for being on this path, eventually you will look back at where you have been and know that even if you didn’t get to where you thought you’d be you have still gotten somewhere. And you will find that it may not even be easy to recognize that person who first took those awkward steps out into the world and explored their creativity. You will know so much more than you ever thought possible. You will dream dreams that were never an option for that person you left behind. And you will now know for a fact that there is so much more to the world than you can ever come to understand. And you may find that this humility was the single biggest step you took, though it may have happened while you were not looking and it may be hard to place a finger on when exactly it took place…… And isn’t that also part of the mystery that we perhaps have to embrace?

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Asking ‘better’ questions about Art

“Have you seen the movie Ghost? Is that local clay? Is the furnace your kiln? What kind of paint do we use. Do you do this all day?”— Typical questions to the artist from visitors at the pottery studio of Tony Clennell

If you are a potter you may have heard these same questions before or ones just like them. They seem designed to drive us crazy. They seem to almost comically miss the point. What are these people looking for? Why are they asking these things? Don’t they get it?

Obviously not. But is there a preferred way to understand art, to look at it, to make sense of what artists do? Well, sometimes clearly there is a tragic difference between an audience ‘getting it’ and not, so it seems there are real and important variations in how we can know a work of art. But are there objectively ‘better’ ways of understanding than others? If we haven’t seen the movie Ghost, for instance, are we missing something important about pottery? (Heh, heh)

What we do know often seems to be imperfect, a lesser form of understanding than is possible. Its sometimes obvious that there are better ways of looking at things. And we can unlock more of the important details by asking better questions. But what are the right questions that need to be asked? It seems true that even brilliant answers to the wrong questions get nowhere fast. Asking the right questions must surely be the best way forward. So….

I just read an interesting essay that takes a stand on what sorts of questions are the right ones. Its a good read. Here’s the short version:

Don’t ask:

  1. Why is that art?
  2. What is it meant to be?
  3. A four year old could do that, couldn’t they?

Instead ask:

  1. What can I see just by looking at this art work?
  2. How was this art work actually made?
  3. When was it made, and what was happening in art and broader history at that time?
  4. Why did the artist create this work and what is its meaning to them, and to us now?

The author thinks these last four are the better questions, “Questions that will finally yield some answers”. Perhaps these are the questions that will let us finally know art for what it really is….. Maybe?

Personally, I think a legitimate question is whether there necessarily is a ‘better’ vantage to understand art from and what this might even mean. Does ‘better’ mean ‘more accurate’? Is there is an objectivity to aspire to? Does ‘better’ inhabit the understanding of the artist, the educated audience, the culture in which it was produced, none of these, or all of these? ‘Better’ seems to imply a ‘best’, and if it doesn’t, then what does that tell us? How exactly is ‘better’ determined? Is ‘better’ something on a continuum of quality or is it instrumental, for instance? (Does science aim at ‘truth’ or understanding how things work?)

The four ‘better’ questions he asks could almost surely not have come from anyone who is not an art historian or seriously educated in art historical themes. And the questions themselves are interesting, to me at least. I’m just not sure that “What can I see just by looking at this art work?” is valuable as anything besides what it teaches me about what I can see just by looking at this art work. I’m also not sure that “How was this art work actually made?” answers anything besides how this art work was actually made….. These are different questions. Are they better questions? Is there some instrumental value that is handed to us by knowing these things? Do they necessarily point to anything beyond themselves? That seems like a good question too.

You don’t need to be an art historian to ask good art questions. For instance, what would a psychologist ask? “What was the mental state of the artist as she was making this? What was going on in her life at the time?” perhaps? Or, “How did her childhood influence her perspective on this particular creative issue?” What would a geologist like to know about a potter’s work? What would a chemist like to know about paintings? What would a gymnast like to know about a dance performance? What would a poet like to know about a stage production? What would a gallerist like to know about a sculptor? What would a banker like to know about a jeweler?………

To understand art better do you need to ask ALL these questions? Is it like filling in the blanks? An unfinished puzzle or one that has missing pieces? Is ‘better’ simply more comprehensive, more things filled in? But then even poor questions shed light. We can even learn by understanding what questions not to ask. Understanding can be indirect. So even looking towards a more comprehensive view still leaves us with the determination of good (accurate) questions and bad (inaccurate). Right? Does being comprehensive include what we consider to be ‘bad’ questions? And in what way? Has inclusiveness solved what we are trying to figure out? Or has it simply moved the problem up a level? Maybe the pieces we gather don’t all fit the same puzzle. Maybe its not simply one puzzle to be solved but different versions that all seem to point at the same underlying thing……..

My point is that some questions matter more to some people than others, and there are legitimate reasons they do. What we want to know often says more about who we are than what we are looking at. The questions we are inclined to ask generally follow the lines of things we are interested in. We are motivated to want to uncover specific things. We have been led to these questions by the values of our beliefs, the path of our lives. And that’s not to say that there are not ‘bad’ questions, but bad for what? Bad according to whom? What, precisely, are they bad in terms of?

As Duchamp noted, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” That seems to open the door beyond any one authority. Is there no one voice, then, who speaks for art?

If you ask an art historian you will get one response, and if you ask the artist themselves you may get something completely different. In that case can we say that the artist who doesn’t ask these art historical questions is therefor lacking in understanding? Does the art historian know the work better than the artist themselves? Maybe we would want to say that, but why? And is this a comment about the work itself or the merits of the perspectives? Are we talking about the art, or what can be said about it?

A quaint rustic scene, right?

A quaint rustic scene, right?

One other question is whether knowing more is always an advantage. Is it always the case that the more we know about a work of art the ‘better’ we will appreciate it? We have this phrase, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you”, and it seems to mean something not entirely irrelevant. For instance, I look at a painting of some rustic bucolic scene and think its decent. Then I look at the sign on the wall only to discover it was painted by Hitler. How does that change my perceptions? Does this added knowledge allow me to see the painting ‘better’? This is a question of the relation between knowing and seeing. Does new information always circumvent perceptual and conceptual biases or does it occasionally bolster them? Value often seems precariously balanced between what a thing is and what we think it is.

“I’m rich!” or not……

“Oh that’s a Degas. Isn’t it just marvelous!” Don’t we often see what we think we are looking at? Doesn’t understanding occasionally precede actual perception? Its always interesting when paintings that have been revered are pointed out as fakes. What we now know changes what we see. What do we learn from that? Is there a pure perceptual agnosticism at the end of ‘ultimate knowledge’? Will the ‘best’ view of art be perspective-free? Detached? Or is the ‘best’ view the view that aligns with human cultural values? How else can we justify the different appreciation for ‘authentic work’ and forgeries? Does value hang by such a slender thread?

If you notice, we are hardly looking at just the work of art itself in some cases. There is a penumbra of contingency that shapes how we see and what we see. Is ‘better’, therefor, part and parcel of contingent and historical accident? Provenance? If who made a work sometimes matters as much as what the work itself is are we actually seeing the work better if we absolutely know the author? Does knowing an artist’s style help us see the work more clearly? Or does it offer a shortcut that helps us ‘understand’ the work without actually seeing it? Is ‘knowing’ a perceptual comfort zone that occasionally induces our cognitive laziness? How does being deceived about the author connect with being deceived about the work itself?

Jonah Lehrer looked at these questions back when he was the new whiz kid of science journalism, and despite how we may feel about some of his other scholarship he makes some interesting observations (meta?). You can read his research here.

The first thing the researchers discovered is that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art. The key word in that sentence is “detectable”: fMRI remains a crude tool, and just because it can’t pinpoint a significant difference between groups (especially given these limited sample sizes) doesn’t mean there is none. That said, it’s not exactly surprising that such similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responses. It takes years of training before critics can reliably discern real Rembrandt from copies. And even then there is often extensive disagreement, as the 1995 Metropolitan show demonstrates. However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

The first thing the researchers discovered is that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art. The key word in that sentence is “detectable”: fMRI remains a crude tool, and just because it can’t pinpoint a significant difference between groups (especially given these limited sample sizes) doesn’t mean there is none. That said, it’s not exactly surprising that such similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responses. It takes years of training before critics can reliably discern real Rembrandt from copies. And even then there is often extensive disagreement, as the 1995 Metropolitan show demonstrates.
However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

What’s the difference between wanting to get to know a work of art, this-here-now, and wanting to know all there is to know? Sometimes its like going on a date. Do you really want to know all the juicy details of their past? If you knew all the mistakes they made beforehand would you ever be in a position to like them or forgive them? Aren’t some details irrelevant? Or the timing of the informations could be better or worse? Isn’t how we come to know often as important as what we come to know?

And aren’t some things better left unsaid? Can knowing too much sometimes actually destroy the possibility of further interest? If our interest ends prematurely what are the consequences for our incipient knowledge? Isn’t that first kiss sometimes something magical, and it eventually goes downhill from there? Sometimes? And if we put that in perspective will it sabotage things for us? If we are looking squarely at the hardships of a long term relationship would we have second thoughts about the next date? Isn’t our own passion often defeated by knowing too much? And do we generally call this an improvement? Is deeper knowing always better knowing?

I have picked up, moved, shaped,
and lightened myself of many tons of clay,
and those tons lifted, moved, and shaped me,
delivering me to this living-space
I wake and move about in,
space perhaps equal to that I have opened and enclosed
in plate, cup, bowl, jug, jar.
I am thankful no one ever
led me to the pit I’d help to make in Earth,
or showed me all the clay at once.
I’m grateful no one ever said, There.
That heap’s about a hundred fifty tons.
Go make yourself a life.
And oh, yes, here’s a drum of ink.
See what you can do with that.
I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

from, “Calling the Planet Home” by Jack Troy.

Maybe these questions are not interesting to others. All our questions face that hurdle. But then we need to ask if that’s the fault of the questions themselves or simply the potential difference between any two human beings. I, personally, like asking questions. Challenging my own articles of faith isn’t just a silly diversion, its important. To me, at least…. To each their own, right?

Is cricket better than baseball? Is Rugby better than soccer? Chess than checkers? Questions are like moves in different games. Sometimes it looks like we are playing the same game, or that the pieces match up, but it also turns out that different games use the same pieces and moves can look nearly identical and yet be undertaken for radically different purposes.

We often think we are getting at the things behind our words, that we are peeling back the layers of confusion to get at the real things. We imagine that the art is something beyond what we casually understand it to be. We hope for a better insight in the same way that science gives us insight by performing experiments and bringing technology to bear. As if we were peering closer at nature.

Most people can point to art if you ask them (gray areas notwithstanding), but what does that tell us? What are we trying to see? When we talk about ‘art’, are we even sure we are always talking about the same thing? Are we pointing out a natural category, primordial divisions in world? Something like kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Or atom, electron, nucleus? Or is it just a happy illusion of our language that so many things can all be referred to as ‘art’? And will the same questions penetrate equally in all directions of how that word gets used? Are the questions we use simply the choice between better and worse instruments?


I know my head is starting to spin. By my count that’s 82 questions I just asked relating to how we see art. You tell me which were the better questions and which didn’t lead anywhere. It seems that if asking the right sort of question is the best way forward you won’t be getting anywhere if you are not asking questions. So, what are the things that matter to you? What are the things you would like to know about art? What are the questions you ask?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

And keep asking those questions!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Creativity, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 3 Comments

Repost: The aerobic exaggeration of ‘Carpe Diem’

I can’t help but think of the film Dead Poets Society when I hear the phrase ‘Carpe Diem’, a film that examines the conditions of life and ends in suicide. Robin Williams helped stick seizing the day cleanly in my psyche. “Seize the day!” was also the last line in another of his immortal movies, Hook, this time delivered by a different actor (playing ‘Tootles’). Many of his films can even be looked at as either directly or indirectly touching on this theme. The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting…. The message often seems to be that of not bending to circumstance but carving out a life of integrity and opportunity….. Make the best of your world. Seize the day…..

And there is something about Williams’ on screen persona and his celebrity interaction that (at least publicly) embodied the exuberance of ‘seizing the day’. He liked to make people laugh, and the effort and energy he expended in that cause is simply astonishing. And yet, amidst all the outward frivolity and extroversion there clearly was more going on. And maybe that means that despite the good intentions of ‘seizing the day’ its not enough. Maybe a complex divided soul requires more than testosterone filled ‘seizing’, even of the day’s most bountiful treasures. Maybe there’s more to life than seizing. Maybe there are treasures that can’t be seized…… Perhaps some of life’s greatest treasures are not meant to be ‘possessed’ or are too fragile to be held in clumsy hands…….. And maybe some of life’s greatest gifts are not what you receive but what you yourself have to share……

Here are some thoughts I can share on this other way of looking at it:

(This was written and first posted about a year and a half ago. Hope it makes some sense…..)


The aerobic exaggeration of ‘carpe diem’


carpediem“Seize the day!”

It sounds like a motto we can all probably relate to. Its an exhortation to kinetic activity. It describes a standard for our behavior. Its a personal moral imperative. And it makes sense, to a certain extent. It tells us: “Don’t squander the day. Don’t let it pass you by. Don’t look back with regret and wish you’d done it differently…. Opportunity knocks! Don’t let it slip through your fingers.

But a thing looks different at first glance and in drawing out its implications and further consequences. Instructions to ‘seize’ anything can also seem a bit too possessive, a bit too ‘graspy’. If we put our moral virtue in the activity of ‘seizing’ one has to wonder how far the slippery slope will carry us….

Seizing the day is such a self propelled activity that so thoroughly stands or falls on its rewards that we can easily imagine that the more we are seizing the better we are doing it. Its an aggressive attitude (What would the difference have been if we were told to ‘cradle the day’?). There is nothing passive about seizing. Its a struggle, not merely to hold on, but to capture and to confiscate. There is no room for surrender. For might have beens. For taking a back seat. For just witnessing. Seize it now. Seize it cleanly. And don’t look back. Seize it or be damned….

And rather than simply receiving the day that is offered us we must actively TAKE it. And not just any old way. We must take what we want when we want it. Its ours to take, after all…

Seize the day! Make it ours! The walls are undefended! Storm the castle and put its livestock to the sword. Accept no prisoners. Scatter their ashes to the wind. Suck the marrow from their bones….. Seizing the day is a belief that victims are a part of the natural order. And that might makes right. The power to seize things. Its Darwinian selection. The quickest to act claims the spoils. Snooze you lose. The early bird gets the worm…. Its never seize your own junk, but seize the assets from someone else. Its never seize up thine own beating heart, but pillage where ye may….

We bought the ticket when we entered this world, and rather than sitting in the comfy chairs with the rest of the sheep in the audience its time to get up on stage. We are in this thing called ‘life’ and its time we discovered that it is a full contact event, not a spectator sport…. Its not for the faint of heart. Take your chances or get off the can. Don’t waste your turn. The meek will inherit only the dust of our passing…..

Seizing the day is a kinetic extravagance. A carnival of opportunity. Where do we wish it to take us? Everything depends on our own powers of motion. We are at the center of the universe and we need to see how it can serve us. ‘The world is our oyster’. As much of it as we can get our fingers on. We need to seize it before it passes us by.

And an aerobic and acquisitive call to arms is the method of Pirates not Saints. At its roots ‘carpe diem’ betrays a profound and self-centered anarchy of the soul…. To seize the day is not simply to embrace life. Its not a call to nurture it. Its not a plea to shelter the weak and feed the hungry. The harder you seize it the more you crush it. And the fragile flowers turn to paste. Everything within our grasping reach gets throttled into servitude. If I can reach it its mine. And the dreams of others are strangled by its greedy fingers….

Everyday is your Birthday. And all the presents are for you to claim.
Every night is your prom. And the music is being played just for you.
Pick the golden fruit.
Pluck the brass ring.
Don’t let others stand between you and the prize.
Trample anyone who gets in your way.
Squeeze all the juices out.
Lick the bowl clean.
Never give up.
Winner takes all.
King of the heap.
You are either on top or you are not.
Nowhere else but first place matters.
There are only winners and losers.
Make hay while the sun is shinning.
Get all you can while the getting’s good.
“Do what thou wilt” is the whole of the law.
Life is a frontier riot, and it waits for no one.
The only question is who will clean out the shelves first.
Who will seize the day first?
So fill your pockets with booty.
Fill your life with plunder.
Seize the day. Everyday.


Maybe it makes sense to do a bit less ‘seizing’…..

Rather than storming the castle we can in good conscience also sometimes surrender it. Rather than only taking from life we can still maintain our dignity and also sometimes give up the things of value. Its not always about how much we can add to our own hoard. Its not always about what life owes us. We can also receive with humility rather than entitlement. The world is not set out only as tribute to our powers of grasping. Its not always a matter of imperial conquest and piracy….. ‘Seizing the day’ sounds so much like the self absorbed morality of petty children and sufferers of mid-life crises…..

The opposite of seizing the day might be a recognition of the ecology of our lives. That we are a part, not the center. That we are also there to serve, not only to be served. That rather than seizing for ourselves we can make things possible for others. We can sacrifice and surrender our own ambitions. Instead of ‘me first’ it can and often should be ‘we first’…… Any good parent or true friend knows these values.

And rather than only something kinetic and aerobic, life can also be contemplative and compassionate. Rather than a Dionysian cavorting through the mansions of the gods it can be a humble acceptance of our own extraordinary ordinariness. Looking inward rather than outward. Meditation rather than manipulation. Acquiescence rather than acquisitiveness….. What are the treasures of our own soul? Rather than simply seizing more, perhaps we can turn to a better understanding of what we already have. Perhaps our success needs to be measured less by the capacity of our bank vault and more by the capacity of our soul….

Seizing and pillaging leaves only smoking ruins behind and the tears and curses of those who got in our way. We must learn to also be builders rather than destroyers, planters rather than harvesters. If the art of living is simply what we can get away with, then how much does this extend to what we can give away? If its only about my own hands grasping how much does this extend to what I can claim for others? Rather than taking advantage of situations and other people we must give advantage to them and construct situations for them. If its only about living the present as though it were our last day on earth how much do we build for the future and for our children’s children’s children? If we are so occupied with seizing the day do we have time to stop and consider others? Our sense of community? What we leave behind? What we decline? What we leave for others to have and to hold…..?

Perhaps before we get too carried away with the exuberance of seizing the day we should also learn to contemplate the day. Study it. Marvel at the role we play, not just for our own good, but for the good of others. Contemplate our own great good fortune. How we are only here through the compassion and sacrifice of others. Our parents. Our friends…. And not be so obsessed with wringing as much as we can, and more than we already have.

Seizing, it turns out, is often a poisoned fruit. What we win by this grasping agenda may be here today, but gone tomorrow….. Slicing the pie only to our own advantage is not likely to win us any favors or future consideration. Our own progress only at the cost of trampling others will hardly endear us to them. Squeezing blood from stones is not a long term strategy. Planting only the charred husks of corpses will not feed us in the end….

So perhaps it makes sense to broaden our view, and seize tomorrow as well. Seize it as payment to the others in our lives. For their roles in the ecology of our lives. For their own lives’ sake. Seize it because its our responsibility to care for, in trust to those who come after. Nurture it for the benefit of all. Seize it with the delicate sensitivity of an artist’s hands. Not crushing, but sheltering from the storm. Breathing life by owning to the obligation we have to its sustenance and prosperity. Tiptoe around the day. Enjoy the day! And by doing so, learn to surrender to it at the same time….. Slow down. Accept the day. Know peace….

What goes around comes around….

Are we closer to Saints or to Pirates?


Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

Art and Exhibition

Do you exhibit your art? Are you an ‘art’ exhibition-ist? Are you, in fact, an exhibitionist? Does exhibition live comfortably in your psyche, in your soul? Is putting yourself out there for public consumption nothing awkward, nothing against your normal persona, and possibly even something you enjoy? Do you like strutting your stuff and scrambling for your 15 minutes of fame? Is living in the limelight exactly where you need to be?

When you put it like that it becomes an interesting question.

We live in a world where extroversion is taken as the norm. Introverts are often seen as people with a problem. They like keeping to themselves more than is healthy and don’t fully embrace La Dolce Vita. They need to be ‘fixed’, as if something is broken inside them. An affliction. Introverts are often happiest when they are by themselves or with small groups of friends, their family, or partner. Crazy, right! Its not that they can’t be sociable on occasion, act casual in the midst of a social storm, but that doing so is not always agreeable to them or in their own best interest…… Surely we must save them from themselves?

So we have this default in our society that often misunderstands the introvert as somehow deficient, as somehow abnormal, as somehow anti-social. And the parallel to how society understands artists can quite easily be drawn. We expect artists to be exhibitionists. We think that if you are not putting your work out there with the abandon of extroversion you are somehow doing it wrong. Starving artists are almost a type of sociopath. They just don’t understand that lurking in the shadows makes them dangerous. They don’t understand that wearing the occasional lampshade at parties is proof that you belong to society……

If your ‘Exhibition Record’ doesn’t include things like “Danced partially naked at the Normal Bar in front of 150 strangers, February 12th, 1994″, “Got sloppy drunk and proposed marriage to five marginal acquaintances, June 23rd, 2007″, or “Sang the entire Oklahoma song list in the subway train on the way to work, November 3rd, 2012″ somehow the word is that you are missing the point. Don’t let the highlight of your ‘Exhibition Record’ be tame things like “Smiled at a complete stranger as we crossed paths, September 27th, 1972″. Right? More is better. Ostentatious extroversion trumps milquetoast introversion the way the world plays out.

We tend to think that the ‘normal’ way of being an artist is that we get up on the commercial stage and flog our wares. We expect an artist to be this almost flamboyant purveyor of their own creativity. The good ones are always the eccentric ones. ‘Selling it’ means getting out there and putting on a show for the customers. The work doesn’t speak for itself (quite often), so we have to spin the stories, weave the yarns, and tell the tall tales to get our creative progeny successfully to market.

But don’t ask an introvert to do that naturally (or often well). Its a model built on extroversion and exhibitionism…… The values of the marketplace are the qualities of extroverts. That seems important to acknowledge.

Astonishingly, perhaps, not every artist is a natural extrovert. Being a professional artist simply means that for some of us there are competing values in our lives. And our occasional native introversion may be called on to bear the burden of sacrifice. You can’t sell work unless you put it out there, and there may be nothing more contradictory to staunch introverts than doing so. This seems worth pointing out. It seems worth thinking about.

Not that every artist is an introvert at heart, or that even the introverts among us are all as threatened by the seeming need for ‘professional extroversion’. I’m just pointing out that the environment of the selling arts is not based on or even nurturing to the psychological make-up of many folks who are artists. If we haven’t looked at the situation from this perspective we are likely missing something that is important.

Society operates on all sorts of defaults, and our expectations and understanding are often ruled by how these divisions are constituted. Maybe we need to investigate a bit deeper.

Take for instance the prejudice we seem to have concerning our inhibitions. To be inhibited means “unable to act in a relaxed and natural way because of self-consciousness or mental restraint.” Its a restraint of something that is assumed to be our natural state. Being “self-conscious” is somehow the wrong state of affairs. And inhibition is therefor something that is looked at as being unnatural. We expect ourselves to be fully free in exhibiting ourselves. Unselfconscious. Do you see where I’m going?

There is some confusion in our language about the ins and outs of our world, interior and exterior. ‘In-‘ and ‘ex-‘ divide the world, and as with other divisions we often seem to attach values to the way things fall out. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are qualities assigned to things according to how we feel the world is supposed to be. And in a world dominated by the values of extroversion is it any wonder that the ‘in-‘ values take such a beating……? Does that make it ‘right’?

Here’s another way of looking at inhibition. In a sense inhibition aligns itself with the values of introverts. Being self conscious is the natural work of introverts. Its not an unnatural condition and its not the defeat of more objectively valued exhibition. Being self conscious is one of the things that everyday ordinary people justifiably do.

Of course I’m not suggesting that some inhibitions are not bad for even the least exhibitionistic of us. But then some forms of exhibition are not that great either. If there is a flaw in extreme exhibitionists you might say that they are not self-conscious enough. You simply cant judge a quality on the extremes only (and if that last statement isn’t sufficiently meta, I’ll have to try harder….). ‘Inhibition’ shouldn’t be a dirty word.

Inhibition means keeping it close, not getting carried away with things that are not integral. It means choosing the values that are specifically internal. It points to a direction that is inward. It places priority on the inherent qualities of our personality and experience. It means a focus on the realm on insight and imagination. ‘Inhibition’ has gotten as bad a rap as ‘introversion’ if not worse. It might be better if we thought of ‘integrity’ when we refer to ‘inhibition’.

And if we look at it this way is it any wonder so many natural introverts are drawn to making art? Don’t we often see art as being something intimate to the maker? Isn’t an activity that asks us to sit in often quiet solitary contemplation and investigation as the basis of practice a natural sanctuary for those with introverted inclinations? Isn’t an artist’s studio a refuge from the hurly burly of the outside world?

For instance, in today’s world we see art functioning as a way of discovering who we are as individuals. These are values that introverts seem especially inclined towards. We look inside and see how that manifests in the conditions of our world. We bring forth ideas and imagination to discover our own place in the world. We discover our path. And its because so many of us are drawn to the contemplative side of introversion that art is such a haven for our creativity. We discover who we are by uncovering the language of the things that move us. What things matter? How do I see the world?

But art wasn’t always like that. And people throughout history didn’t always face such existential confusion about their role in the world and their purpose. Creative expression wasn’t always something we do to figure out who we are, to write our own destiny. This seems as much an accident of history and culture as any other.

Take this brief history of Western art and craft.

(Thanks to Carole Epp for sharing this!)

The point being that until Michaelangelo made creativity a function of individual genius (exceptionality) and celebrity things were operating on a much less extroverted basis. Tradition ruled ‘art’ production, and the individual craftsman was more dedicated to expressing part of that culture. They expressed themselves as part of that culture. Artisans were the keepers of value, preservationists rather than gymnastic exponents of novelty. Expression was something internal to a culture. An impression of that culture, one might even say. Expression was defined by its internalism. Identity was also much more focused on belonging to the group than in standing apart from it. The individual as representing that culture rather than something uniquely risen up from it.

Times change. Only as creative expression took on the character of the unique and exceptional did art seem to break away from its substantial grounding in tradition. And looking at art as requiring this ample extroversion only pays deference to an historical cultural accident and not some objective necessity. The door to extroversion was thrust widely open as soon as we made celebrity part of the equation. And that seems worth thinking about……

Signature style, brand, selling the sizzle, reputation, celebrity… all these things have extrinsic value written boldly across them. And if the current world, the status quo, seems to value these things more is that a lesson we all need to respect and obey? Are there equally worthy requirements of intrinsic motivation that escape this set of values? And are they less precious, in and of themselves?

I sure hope not! But maybe we need to do a better job of figuring this out. Maybe we need to look at the problem a bit closer than we (perhaps) often do. Something to think about at least………

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!



Posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 1 Comment

“Some days you are the puppet, and some days you are the hand”

I wish I had thought of that myself, but credit goes to ‘The Clay Professor’, Steve Hansen, for at least first sharing it on the internet if not coming up with it himself.

And it seems right, doesn’t it? Some days we are self directed, pulling our own strings, and other days we are at the mercy of some alien puppeteer or outside influence/circumstance. Some days we are the definitive origin of our ideas and behavior, and other days we are reactive. Some days we are marching to our own beat, and others we are obviously being spoon fed, acting out the roles, mouthing the mantas, snugly stereotyped. Some days we are the doers, and others we get done upon…….

This was a topic we discussed a bit in my class this last week. I think it has application throughout our lives, but as creative beings it seems especially suggestive. For artists the question is often how to put ourselves in the right position to foster and capitalize on our inborn creativity. We don’t always know where out best ideas come from, its not always like plucking ripe fruit from the tree. Sometimes its like sticking a shovel into the mud and hoping we come up with more than dirt……

How is this related? How is artistic creativity often a question of victim and protagonist? It seems we are at least occasionally a mix of the two, the hand and the puppet. The truth seems that usually the hand can’t fully express itself without the puppet to put things in context, to dress up the potential in recognized ways, but also that the puppet obviously just lies there lifeless when no hand inhabits the framework to pull its strings….. We might even say that wanting to play the puppet can be a sort of intention. These things are not necessarily as separate as might appear at first.

A guest lecturer in one of my grad courses explained it this way: Any time you prepare to sit down and be creative it makes sense to ‘prime the will’. In other words, artists position themselves to be more successfully creative by arranging the conditions such that the muse is more welcome, more at home when it gets there, and more able to thrive in the practice of creative work. Whatever the powers of your own originality it makes sense to be in the best position possible to take advantage of them.

Once upon a time it seemed that if I was having a bad day there was no reason I should sit down and attempt to be creative. The baggage I carried to my studio would overwhelm my process and defeat any possibility of fruitful exploration. My will had been obstructed at square one. I was more dependent on these circumstances than responsible for my own success. A classic victim. But eventually I discovered that even with defeatist baggage in tow simply being creative sometimes had the power to transform my day. Just getting involved in the process allowed for a transformation that I might not have achieved in any other way. That seems like an interesting observation…….

Here’s something related: Warm-up exercises. Say you were going to run a marathon. You woke up one day, after years of sitting on your couch and eating fried food, and you decided that running a marathon would be a good idea. Obviously the couch time and poor diet won’t be doing you any favors, but its also true that even in the best of circumstances you don’t just decide one day to run a marathon and step out the door to do it. You need preparation. You need practice. You need to construct the conditions that will lead to your eventual accomplishment.

And its this longer view that comes in handy. Say you are a novice potter and you want to throw a large bowl. Well, you can try straight off, but it might make more sense to ease your way into the process. You might work your way up to big by starting in a range you are more comfortable with. Challenge yourself but not risk implosion. Trying to do too much too fast only sabotages our goals and harms our sometimes fragile confidence. It can deflate rather than bolster our will. Make intermediate shapes and sizes as a way of establishing and nurturing your confidence. Lay a foundation of accomplishment before you tackle the higher priority projects. Set expectations on the back burner and work on putting yourself in an optimal working condition. Work on conditioning. It only counts as opportunity if you are in a position to take advantage. Stack those odds in your favor. Prime your will.

So, preparation and setting the right conditions are obviously important for the practice of lesser experienced artists, but what about established professionals? Can we give up on these insights once we have mastered our medium? Perhaps we are more naturally in control then, but why would you knowingly operate at less than your optimal capacity? Why would you accept obstacles in your path when you already know the procedure for painlessly removing them?

Famously, well known successful artists have resorted to all sorts of extremes in personal will priming. We do what it takes to bait the hook for our muse and get the creative process kicked into gear. Occasionally this verges on the superstitious. Take, for instance, Truman Capote. He “wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.”

Or this anecdote about Friedrich Schiller:

[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.

Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”


What do you do that sets the table for your creativity? How do you prime your will?

Is ambient background music necessary? The radio? NPR? Podcasts? Or an absence of music? Does sound distract or contaminate what you are trying to do? Do you surround yourself with images? Make the studio a haven of resources from other artist’s ideas? Or are other people’s creativity dangerous influences that might adversely change what we are trying to do? Is a clean studio necessary? A knolled studio? Or is it important that order reign in its absence? Do we need to start working at specific times of day? Do the crossword puzzles first? Do we need to get to work only on a full stomach? Does an empty stomach and a sense of desperation get the creative juices flowing? Is coffee a creative stimulant? Whiskey? (Somehow a cold beer and grad school often seemed to go hand in hand for me) Do we warm up before first sitting down? Are the first few lumps of clay exercises designed to get us in the groove? Do we practice brushwork on paper before we commit to painting on pots?

There are so many potential ways we can take better control over our process. What do you do to make your time in the studio more productive? What things are in your control that you have identified as promoting your chances of creative accomplishment?

I’d love to hear what folks have to say, so don’t be shy about sharing :)

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!



Posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination | 25 Comments

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.



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!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 7 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…….


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!”



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