Close encounters with the collective unconscious

This morning I had to do a double take as I was getting cereal together for my breakfast. I had set the coffee pot down inside a bowl I hadn’t yet cleaned from last night’s dinner, and turned to start pouring my cereal. From the corner of my eye I saw this:

Even from the corner of my eye I knew I had just witnessed a bolt of lightning. Or maybe because it only was from the corner of my eye (Sometimes if you stare at things directly you never really see them, you have to squint or look from your peripheral view). I have set my coffee pot down in similar if not the same ways, but was never before stuck by the image. My first thought this morning was: “Hey! I have seen that same kind of shape in Zygote’s covered jars! How cool is that!”

I grabbed my camera and took a few pics just the way I had first seen the image. And then as I started to get the pics onto my computer I realized: “I’ll be damned if that doesn’t also remind me of Don Reitz’s big pots….”

And then to top it all off I thought:”Hey dummy. You’ve made similar shapes yourself!” (Or, at least they are similar in my mind….) I was starting to feel like I had stepped into the movie “Close encounters of the third kind”, and I was seeing the same shape everywhere.

And when you get right down to it, this is a story that gets repeated in far too many examples to list here. So I wonder, what does this mean? Does the human imagination have some kinds of limits? Is it a case of seeing pictures in clouds, and some of us picking out similar things by mere coincidence? Or, is the human mind naturally drawn to certain images? I’m sure folks like Jung would tell us all about archetypes and the collective unconscious, but I’d rather hear what you all think. Do people’s imaginations pick the same kinds of details out by coincidence or is it something deeper? Do our pots sometimes seem familiar only by mistake and misadventure, or are we simply playing out the themes of our genetic psychological heritage? Or are we only unconsciously learning from each other and copying some of the detail by unintentional accident? Or on purpose? On purpose but at a level deeper than consciousness? Is it just the smallness of our world that we are all looking at the same kinds of things? Or is it a big cosmic joke and we are stuck repeating patterns, like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill?

Perhaps it is just that the physical logical possibility of shapes is limited and we are all merely playing in the same small sandbox? Kind of like the wisdom that there are only really 7 (or 11 depending on who you ask) stories, and that everything written is merely some variation of boy meets girl, girl meets boy, overcoming obstacles, betrayal, redemption, etc. Its not just that our minds are programmed a certain way, but that we all have to fit ourselves into the same small universe with its constricting rules and laws of physics , logic, and geometry. Is this what our ceramics instructors mean when they try to convey (perhaps a bit mysteriously) that “there is nothing new under the sun”, “nothing is original”, and that “it has all been done before”?

And the bigger question: As interesting as this may be, does it matter? Is there anything we can do with this information? If we ignore it will we be just as happy or even happier? Where do we fit on the divide between the unexamined life being not worth living and ignorance being bliss?

Well, one quick response is that if we truly digest this question it takes some of the burden off both feeling that we can’t imitate and that we have to reinvent everything ourselves. In fact, it gives us license to steal. If its already been done, so what? What’s the problem with me doing it as well? And if I don’t have to always come up with the entirely, absolutely new ideas myself, what’s to stop me from learning by other people’s example? There is nothing wrong with being inspired by other people if we take those ideas in our own direction. And the need to be wholly original at some deep level is only the burden of our superstitions and mythologies. What we call “new” is just the gloss of a surface variation. Originality is a difference in degree not in kind. Or something like that….

So maybe this really means that we should be looking at other people’s pots, that we should celebrate the diversity that we do have. I remember hearing about a potter who said he never puts up images of other people’s pots in his studio: Because he didn’t want to be influenced. I always thought that was silly and maybe a bit sad. As if other people’s pots were somehow infectious contaminants. Personally, I would rather see as many things as possible, open myself to as many variations as other people have come up with, live in the open clean air of the wide world, and not burrow down in some small hole of my own making. Or even worse, burrow down in a hole that someone else made, live in their home with only their furniture and thoughts and nothing of my own. But maybe that’s just me. I don’t know the answer or even if there is a right answer. These are just some ideas to think about.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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5 Responses to Close encounters with the collective unconscious

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    “I remember hearing about a potter who said he never puts up images of other people’s pots in his studio: Because he didn’t want to be influenced.”

    I agree that it would be sad, and maybe even a little bit crazy, to not want to see other potters’ work at all. Thinking that by just not looking you could avoid being influenced completely ignores the “no new thing under the sun” argument, not to mention the power and all-pervasive nature of visual culture. How far would one have to take that strategy to restrict outside influences? Never leave the house? Turn off the radio, TV and access to the Internet?

    But it seems to me that the key phrases in the way you originally stated that are “puts up images” and “in his studio”. I can see the rationale for wanting to see other potters’ work only at specific and intentional times. For me, so many decisions in the studio are made on the fly, often based on gut instinct, that I’d like to avoid the possibility that I’m just imitating the last thing I saw in my peripheral vision; someone else’s show card tacked to the wall somewhere. So while I used to “put up images” of all that stuff “in my studio”, now I keep them tucked away where I can get to them on demand, but not by accident. Sometimes the covers of a book are a nice buffer between your brain and its content.

    Everywhere else, I’m mind wide open. Just going to the kitchen to make lunch halfway through a work day is a flood of information, solutions, hints and warnings — all contained in other peoples’ pots. Not to mention radio (OK, podcasts), TV and the Internet.

    • I can’t tell if you are playing devil’s advocate here (please tell me you are :) ), but I remember not so long ago a certain Michael Simon teabowl being used to inspire how you look at the surface of your pots. But for the sake of argument I will pretend that your comment above is what I should respond to.

      So here goes: I would wonder that if all those sources of information are somewhere in the background of your unconscious mind can you truly ever escape them? Isn’t that exactly where your ‘gut’ instinct comes from? The training of visual preferences and the patterns in which we explore them? All this background is with us every step of the way, and you can’t just shut it off. Whether you see the postcard in the studio or the pot in the kitchen is irrelevant: Who you are is what you have seen. We carry it on our back and wear it on our fingers. We are different because we have seen these things. And we can’t unsee them.

      It almost sounds like you are playing a game with your conscious intentions when just beneath the surface is every Michael Simon pot you ever saw, stacked, inventoried, and ready to be used as inspiration when the need arises. I know it is for me, and plenty more besides :) . We are never not being influenced by the things we have seen, and 2 seconds or 2 hours, 2 years or 20, doesn’t really matter. We are no more ‘true to our self’ by ignoring the influences as they come at us. If we like something it is already in that back catalog of possible inspiration whether we want it or not. We are already changed. And ignoring that change actually is less true to our new self. If we are what we eat, our gut feelings are an assembly of the influences already inside us.

      The point of my post was really that we often don’t know where these ideas and images come from, and that if we let ourselves control some of our influences, and be honest that inspiration sometimes just happens whether we want it or not, we won’t fight against it so hard. We may even embrace it. We can be honest that, yes, some of the things we do are influenced by other people’s work. We can put that information to good use and actively select the things to be inspired by. We can try some of these ideas on for size and see how they fit. No long term commitment implied, just an active exploration of visual information. [And that ignores my whole argument that we could have all that stuff scripted for us in the collective unconscious, or genetic psychological make up, or that there is just a limit to our expression by the laws of physics, logic, and geometry. (Did any of that even make sense in my argument in the post?)]

      So here’s a devil’s advocate for you Mr Lucifer :) . What would be so wrong about intentionally doing your own take on that postcard image you saw out of the corner of your eye? If you tried to copy it exactly you would probably learn a great deal. You might not want to base your next body of work on exact replicas of this pot, but an experimental stab surely will do no harm. (I actually teach a class called “copying the masters” specifically to help teach students how to see details in a more sophisticated way. This is a great way for them to understand differences by looking through someone else’s eyes.)

      And what about using it as something to riff on? “Damn that was a nice handle! I wonder if I could do something similar with handles on my pots. Wouldn’t my pots look better if I improved my handles based on this one?” And this really was the point of the post: If its all been done before why would we get uptight about making conscious use of other people’s ideas? If its all been done before we can’t help it. The idea may be in front of us or in our memory, but we didn’t think it up just by ourselves. Trying to be wholly original or an unimpeachable island in a sea of influences is impossible. Someone else already did that thing, said that idea, etc., so why try claiming it entirely for your own? Why is that important?

      Wasn’t that also the point of your link on a potter’s archive blog to the Austin Kleon post “How to steal like an artist”? I actually have a whole other post in the wings that relates how startled I was when I read the post. I thought, “Wait a second! I just spent the last few months trying to figure this stuff out on my own and here some other guy is saying exactly the same thing! I thought all these things on my own! They are my original ideas!”

      Big deal, right? Obviously I’m not the only one thinking them. Maybe I heard them all somewhere else before I internalized them, before I put all the pieces together in my own way so that I could express the ideas in my own words. In fact Austin and I BOTH probably did this. We probably both have parallel and similar histories that led to the convergence of our ideas. Interesting to think about, I suppose, but in the end, what does it matter? Neither of us is wholly original. There is nothing new under the sun.

      And if there is nothing truly original except what we do with it, isn’t the source of our ideas less important than where we take them? If I see something I like I sure as hell am going to see what use I can make of it. Sticking my head in the sand won’t get me very far, and its the same sand whether I’m in my kitchen or the studio. In fact, my latest handle direction was directly inspired by one of the Ron Philbeck mugs I have. What a brilliant handle! And this new idea is taking over for handles that were inspired by Michael Simon’s. And as I said in a comment on the BP jar post, my own pots are mostly a mash-up of things I learned directly from Ron Meyers and Michael Simon.

      And I’m proud to acknowledge these influences. Why would I hide this? Why would I deny it? Why would I pretend that I did it all on my own? I had great teachers. I love to look at pots. I collect other people’s pots and live a life surrounded by different people’s ideas of beauty and form. At most I have probably only invented 10% of the ingredients of my pots, and that’s probably generous. The rest is just my take on the things I have seen that interest me, different directions I have pushed the ideas of others, and explorations of grounds that others have led me to. I have learned little bits here and there, and I’m always on the look out for better ideas, or new things to be interested in. And I’ll be damned if I am alone in this.

      I hate dropping quotes as a substitute for thinking, but I may not have done as good a job setting out my thoughts in the post above. Here are a few quotes from another Austin Kleon post:

      “Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”
      —Lewis Hyde

      “If an artist may say nothing except what he has invented by his own sole efforts, it stands to reason he will be poor in ideas. If he could take what he wants wherever he could find it, as Euripides and Dante and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Bach were free, his larder would always be full, and his cookery might be worth tasting.
      — R G Collingwood

      “I love art, I love being thrilled by art, and I love folding these thrills into my own practice. I love stealing….I absolutely believe my best work lies ahead of me, and lies in the work I’m absolutely on fire to steal from.”
      —Tom Hart

      “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
      — T.S. Eliot

      “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
      — Jean-Luc Godard

      I will be very disappointed if nothing I have said makes any sense, but I’d rather know than blunder about in the dark. Does anyone see the points I am trying to focus on? Am I hopelessly incoherent? Am I just working myself into another froth because that’s what I do, and I don’t really have a point I’m making? Well, I do carry on, and that’s a fact….

      Happy potting, all :) .

      • OK, you know its bad when you need to respond to your own comments. It took me a bleary eyed morning with only 3 hours of sleep, a mouth shot up with Novocaine and a painful dentist’s visit to clear my head. I should have seen this earlier (last night), but sometimes it just takes time for ideas to percolate.

        What I am now seeing in your comment is that there is a huge difference between influence and distraction. We can’t always control what will influence us, but we can put our sweaty mitts on our process and agenda. We can stay true to our agenda in a way that we can never stay true to ourselves. We can keep to an unchanging process despite all our own personal changes. And in this way seeing that postcard in the corner of our eye can be allowed to become a distraction. If we let it. We can’t stop it from changing who we are, but we can limit the infection of the actual output of our creation. And isn’t this an odd realization?

        And this can happen at both ends of the spectrum. We can be distracted from a rigid agenda of only making this one pot this one way, and we can also be distracted from loosening all agendas. And, as I said, I should have known better. I like to put it out there that I sometimes have to forget even the best of what I’ve done so I can be truly free to explore. And seeing that cool pot on the postcard is a sure way to reintroduce agendas. But I’m also OK with that. I’m OK with being distracted by cool things. I just don’t want to create a rule that I can only proceed in one way, only do such and such. Allowing myself to give in to distraction is one way to keep me entertained. I simply have more fun if I enjoy what I’m doing, doing because I enjoy rather than doing for ulterior reasons or despite no longer enjoying it.

        I think the thing I learned a bit better from your comment was that it is permission I was arguing for, and somehow it sounded like necessity. We are free to do as we wish with our process and our pots. And if we have simply forgotten that we do have permission to change and be influenced perhaps these will be reasons to remember it. We can pick and choose our battles when and where we want.

        Hope that makes some sense…..

  2. Tom Johnson says:

    Carter, I patented that shape in 1976. Doubt I’ll ever be able to collect on it though.

  3. Pingback: The blog year that was | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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