Being There for the arts

Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!

An interesting discussion on Barry Hessenius’ blog concerning the public perception of the arts and what to do about it. This is the issue, as Barry phrases it:

What is the Arts Brand – not that of any individual arts organization – but the whole of the arts?

I think over the past couple of decades we have succeeded in increasing the brand’s image as a sector that has an economic component valuable to both the local and national economy; as responsible for jobs and economic benefit.  We’ve moved the dial in the perception of the brand as valuable to placemaking, and as an important part of overall education.  We’ve expanded the brand somewhat to include a wider consideration of creativity and its importance.  And there has been much discussion of the wisdom of the brand emphasizing the ancillary values of art over the intrinsic values.  Both are part of our brand. While audience attendance may be down in many situations, online involvement is up and the choice of arts experiences has never been deeper.

But despite those developments, we still suffer from our brand being regarded as a  frill; something elitist and exclusive and, the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, as not a priority item when it comes to support – both financial and otherwise.  While we may legitimately think of the arts as essential to the very fabric of society, alas, that’s not our brand image.

How do we change that part of our brand?

(….)

Somehow, we have got to figure out a way to move the brand in the public mind to being considered a value of such magnitude, and one without any reasonable disagreement, that the consensus is that the arts are as important as the ecology, as necessary as education, as valuable to the individual as health.  Unfortunately, the overall brand is more than just the sum of the individual brands of the thousands of organizations that comprise the field.  It is both a part of those individual brands and something distinct and separate from them.

(….)

Mind you that effort is not simply a catchy slogan or fancy logo. While the Art Works phrasing initiated during the Rocco Landesman NEA era is of value, it simply isn’t, by itself, enough to have changed the public’s brand perception.  Partly that is due to the fact that for the most part, the audience for the slogan and the meaning behind it, is largely us. It is  principally directed inward. It preaches to the choir as it were.  We haven’t had the money or other resources to mount an effective campaign to make the public aware of it.

(…..)

The alternative is to simply let the Arts brand mean what it has meant (not to me, not to you – but to far too many) – an elitist pursuit that while valuable, is a luxury society can often ill-afford when compared to higher priorities – despite its contributions to society on other levels, and despite its theoretically widespread public support.  (I say theoretically, because while public opinion sampling polls invariably show substantial public support, the perception of us as an elitist frill still dominates decision making on every level.)  People say we are important, but rarely translate that belief into actions.

My response was:

Quick thoughts:

You differentiate between messages that are directed inward (preaching to the choir) and outward (often leading to the interpretation as an elitist identity). You either are speaking to insiders who get it or to outsiders who need to be told.

The problem I see is that as long as we phrase the message as being *for* outsiders there will always be an ‘us’ and ‘them’ type divide. Art will always be what other people do. And no matter how well we link it to social values like benefits to the economy, outsiders’ connection to the arts will always be tangential and conditional.

Which suggests that we *need* to make the message an inward directed version that simply includes more people. Make the message something that highlights their inclusion, that they already belong. Phrase it in such a way that they get it. If you have to make the message either inward or outward, and outward has this built in limitation, what is needed is an inward directed message that simply starts from a wider position such as to embrace more of the people who can feel as though they belong.

The thing most people take for granted is how embedded art is in our lives, and so we need to remind them that they *do* have a stake in art. Not for the economy, but for their own way of life.

Imagine the world without art, and you have a comparison of how much we depend on art for our existence. Every parent has a kid who learns the world through creativity. Ever adult was once a child who drew pictures. Most people’s homes are decorated with creative flourishes, and these are far from incidental. *Everyone* recognizes beauty and includes it in their lives. Everyone listens to music. What would a world be without music? If folks can even imagine that we have a case for the human necessity of creative acts and for the requirement of art for a human life.

The best brand for the arts as a whole will be a reminder that art is not optional for human life. The confusion has been that the individual brands for individual art forms and institutions have the tendency to overreach. It is not the case that Opera is itself necessary, and it is only our attachment to it that offers up a claim along these lines. We need to think deeper. Spaghetti may be optional, but food is not. Imagine a world without any food. We cannot argue the case for food simply on the merits of spaghetti….

Barry said:

I agree with you too Carter. But see my reply to Margy above. How to we implant the message in the public consciousness? I am less concerned with what the message ultimately is. I believe smart people in our field such as Margy and yourself can help create smart messages – but how do you get them into the public mindset? That’s the issue.

And taking the idiom of planting and fields to heart I gave it my best Being There, Chance The Gardener, metaphorizing:

I think there is also a dichotomy here as well, between what one puts out positively as a message promoting the arts and what needs to be done to silence the negative/counterproductive messaging that stalls people’s identification with the arts. In other words, it may be more important to *not* say certain things that would otherwise orient perception of the arts in a polarizing and marginalizing way.

Human psychology is endlessly weird, but also strangely predictable. With entrenched world views there is something frightening about how pervasive and deeply situated our motivated reasoning, our confirmation bias, and also the backfire effect seemingly are. One of the hurdles we definitely need to transcend is the negative perception of the arts, based in part, as Margy points out, on the way we frame things. We simply need to stop feeding this negative framework. You don’t often change minds with direct rational appeal, but rather need to open the cognitive space in which new ideas can flourish.

Consider it something like weeding a garden patch before sowing seeds. The soil must first be prepared. And it is little wonder that the positive messaging is so fruitless when sown in hostile and barren environments.

So yes, I too believe that folks like Margy will come up with great ideas for the branding the arts need, but in the meantime we can do the work of clearing the field and removing the stumps and boulders. For a crop to be planted and eventually harvested we need to have a soil that can support what we hope to grow.

So the question for us field laborers becomes, “What are we doing that marginalizes the arts? What do we need to stop doing so that the soil will have a chance to become receptive again? What messages and actions undercut the value of the arts in general, even if they are enacted in the name of specific arts and specific art causes?” Anything on this list needs to be looked at closely and weighed against the goal of the more arts appreciative society we hope to one day build.

My two cents worth, at least.

Then a day or so later Joe Patti wrote a blog post that specifically highlights the activity of ‘clearing the field’ necessary to reorient perception. The examples were the practice in Korea of using English names to circumvent the traditional attitudes of hierarchical interaction that were embedded in the practices of only referring to people by honorific titles, and in Japan conducting board meetings in English to, “break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society.”

If arts culture and culture at large are something like a garden we cultivate, what we do positively in messaging our values only thrives to the extent that it is permitted to grow by the conditions of the soil in which it gets planted. And to amend the soil it is sometimes necessary to remove the dead wood, clear the obstructions, break new ground, before the honest work of planting can even take place.

Peace all,

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, metacognition, Wittgenstein | Leave a comment

failure

A friend asked me to write an essay for her website and I happily obliged! The project she is engaged in is absolutely worth exploring. Having confronted failure in her own work, and seen the impediment it can be for all creative ventures, she decided she could help create a discussion and sense of community around the idea of failure and so strengthen our resolve in its face. She has asked artists to share their stories of failure to help remind us that above all it is something we survive and grow from. Because, sometimes we DO need that reminder.

Check out her website. This is the essay I wrote for it:

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As if things are not hard enough on artists, as if they were not already tormented within sight of (if not exceeding) their breaking point……

The idea of ‘failure’ for artists is a sometimes overwhelming part of our lives and it can paralyze even the bravest among us. We can be crippled by self doubt, crushed by falling short, and otherwise hamstrung by not ‘measuring up’. Failure is notorious for artists. The ‘bad’ angel perched on our shoulder. It only sulks back into silent darkness amidst our great triumphs. And only then with a vengeful appetite to reclaim its lost hold on us, to resume whispering its insidious deflating innuendo….

Failure walks by our side at every stage. One small misstep or stumble in the wrong direction and our gift to the world is on life support. Often terminal, but always damaged. ‘Success’ hangs by the slightest of slender threads…..

Or that’s how it can seem at times.

But I also think ‘failure’ is too often very poorly understood: What’s not confusing about it? When it strikes we can go numb or sink in despair. It rarely brings out the best in us, and our rational sense-making can crumple in its presence. Sometimes our anger in facing it down is our only survival skill. So why would we think something this calamitous is necessarily that easy to get a handle on? We shrink from failure as we shirk this very question.

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I believe there are at least two areas of failure that need better exploring, and both are matters of our judgement. One aspect of failure we should address is how we measure failure, and another is what consequences failure necessarily has. Failure is something that happens to us, so how does it happen, and why does it leave what it leaves in its wake? Are we simply the victims here? Or, is there some part of this that can be made to put the ‘enemy’ on its own back foot? Are we creative enough to figure this out? Can we ‘lose’ the battle but win the war? And even win the battle but lose the war….?

First off, to measure failure implies that there was something aimed at, something against which our efforts are weighed. Failure requires a thing, a standard, that our efforts did not measure up to. There is no failure in isolation. Failure only happens against a background of the criteria for ‘success’. Our work is not a failure in itself, only in relation to something else: The measure of our failure. Our stereoscopic vision is challenged to see our art not just for what it IS but for what we want it to be.

So how is failure measured? What is its measure? Is this the same for everything? Or are there diverse measure and unique ways in which failure can be assessed? For that matter, is failure necessarily ‘absolute’? Are there degrees? If a work aims at more than one thing, does well in most of them, by what means do we determine its success? All or nothing? Better than 85%? Simply the ‘most important’ thing we aimed at? Doesn’t it depend?

Complete failure is so rare as to be more myth than reality or so narrowly defined as to miss the larger point. It’s the boogeyman hiding in the closet. But we are often trained to accept only ‘the best’ from ourselves, and the intimidation of ‘failing’ can contort our sense of proportion. Any ‘failure’ becomes mythological, in a sense. It can make us resent our work and hide any but the chosen few results unscarred by failure. We sometimes lock them away or destroy them outright. Too damaged to be allowed to live in this world…..

In some cultures they put the sick and malformed babies out to die, as if the nature of their weight would drag the rest down with it…. Our creative offspring are at the mercy of terrible forces, unforgiving and stone-hearted judges. We have not learned well how to love our failures…. We do not often accept them into polite company. Our artistic failures are orphans if they can escape us…..

Which is why this project being put together by Christine Leoff-Dawson is so interesting, ambitious, and potentially important. There is no hiding that artists are rough on their failures. Sometimes we have good reasons, but more often it is a culture of responding to failure that throws each failure on the scrap-heap. We must unlearn these habits of mind, learn to place each ‘failure’ in its proper context, find what we can that IS worth loving, and together grow what can be grown from not simply the best of the seeds we have sown. We need to be better than the angry archaic gods smiting their disobedient children.

Because the truth is that our own judgment is suspect. What we like today we may dislike tomorrow. What ‘failed’ yesterday may surprise us later. If we are the gods casting judgment, we are not reliable in any permanent sense.

And we can’t even rely on being understood by our audience. It is a considerable miracle when anything we do gets understood the way we intended it. Art is a language we invent as we go, and as such communicates to an audience by the appearance of familiarity more than the grasping of essentials. The common ground of actual communication is mostly lacking. At best we have an apparent ground, and the audience likes or does not like what you do for their own considered reasons. Not yours, in any sense. Except, perhaps, in very rare circumstances……

New art simply does not have the cultural foundation to make sense widely. It cannot say what it means (the ‘words’ are lacking), and so it must show what it intends. The audience must grasp it in unfamiliar hands, apply the standard tools of judgment on this strange nonconformity. And the more our art diverges from their expectations the more we challenge an audience to go beyond their own limits. Expression and impression are more likely than anything that qualifies as ‘communication’…..

The only conclusion seems to be that ‘failure’ is a useful fiction and a temporary designation. There is no one standpoint which confirms it for all time. Neither the audience is specifically entitled to judge, nor are we the artists in an objective or fair-minded place for it. At worst failure is a dead end in our process, and the choice for that usually depends on us. We take things no further. We back away. At best failure is simply the stepping stone to our next destination, itself the stepping stone to further explorations. And yes, that step can even be a backwards one 🙂

Failed art is part of our own story, and we can play it as a tragedy, a comedy, or a thrilling adventure. There are elements of all those things if we see in the proper light. But the story itself is important. If we frame it right the failed art actually IS a comedy, it IS a thrilling adventure…. We too often lack the imagination to see it as more than a tragedy, but that is on us. And the question we are left with is “Did the art fail us, or did we fail the art?”

If we hope to do better there seems only one response worth giving:

Lock your shame in the closet and put your ‘Failed art’ up for exhibition!

 

Posted in Art | 1 Comment

Better pottery through accuracy and precision

“I don’t think you can talk about progress in art—movement, but not progress. You can speak of a point on a line for the purpose of locating things, but it’s a horizontal line, not a vertical one.” Donald Barthelme

Several folks in my community have accused me of being “a better potter” these days, suggesting that from where they stand it appears that I have improved remarkably. Thanks!, I guess….

But I confess this has also left me uneasy. What? Was I not so good that long ago?…. Or maybe I just can’t take a compliment.

Yes I am a curmudgeon. That I won’t quibble with! My response probably says more about me than either the people doing the complimenting or even what got said. Am I getting it all wrong? These people certainly mean well, and want the best for me. Why does it not feel like a compliment?

What, exactly, am I obsessing over? Don’t I acknowledge that some things I am doing *are* better than before? Am I not constantly trying to ‘improve’ my craft? Are they not simply noticing the consequences and effects of my hard work? If I can say with confidence (if not authority) that specific aspects of my pottery-making are better, can’t I also say that I am a better potter? Doesn’t ‘local’ improvement also imply a certain improvement ‘globally’?

The world is interesting enough that all those things may be true in some sense, and yet fall far short of another explanation. I am uneasy about being called a ‘better potter’ for, I think, good reasons. Let me describe it to you:

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What is the difference between accuracy and precision? Sometimes they seem to say the same thing, right? But there is also an important difference that we can (need to) make sense of. Accuracy does not always mean precision. They come closest together when being accurate IS being precise, but those, it turns out, may be very narrow circumstances.

For example, accuracy has to do with how well we hit the target we aim for, but we have not as yet described what we are aiming at. The accuracy depends in some part on the kind of things we are aiming at. If the target is precise, then our accuracy itself may be drawn with precision.

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“Take a dart board and aim for the bulls eye.” You either hit it or you don’t. Some misses count worse than others. There is a range of precision that determines how accurate we are. These are sectioned off in areas bounded by metal wire. The ultimate precision might be the Robin-Hood-splitting-an-arrow type, where ‘exactness’ is something absolute.

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“Cut a length of wood 15 and 3/4 inches.” You measure the wood, get out your saw, make the cut, and check to see how accurate you were. You can eyeball the results and see that ‘within an acceptable tolerance’ you were accurate, or you were not. And the further away from the mark the worse your accuracy.

But how precise is ‘precise’ here? Is there an absolute? Or only practical increments? Degrees of precision? Do we need a micrometer to gauge our accuracy? an electron microscope? or is the relevant precision measured more to what the eye can easily discern? Do we care about being ‘exact’ to the nearest .0000001 of an inch? What, precisely, is ‘measuring up’ here?

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“Park the car close to the house.” What counts as being accurate? In the carport? In the driveway? In the garden? What if the target is left open ended to a certain extent? What if the target itself is only roughly described? If there is no one absolutely accurate location are there even necessarily degrees?

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Accuracy does not, it seems, always depend on precision. If you are not aiming at something precise, then measuring the absolute accuracy loses its potency. (We would be entitled to ask, “Is the garden ‘close’ enough?” And remember, we did not say “as close as you can”, merely “close”.)

We aim at ‘fuzzy’ and ambiguous things all the time. Not everything we do even counts as aiming. Sometimes it is ‘searching‘.

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So what does it mean to be called a ‘better potter’? Is it like getting closer to the absolute center of the bulls eye? Is it being measured by a distance from an absolute point? Because I want to say that ‘accuracy’, measuring up, necessarily implies some sort of ‘aim’. And so becoming ‘better’ seems to indicate a target of some sort:

If I am a better potter now than I was before, what exactly am I aiming at? What do these people think I am aiming at?

Because the idea of aiming does seem to count for something. We assume that aiming is a necessary first step. We in fact assume that aiming is a necessarily desirable first step. But that is not universally the case, no matter how true it is in some circumstances.

For instance, sometimes aiming, and in fact precision in aiming, is itself counter productive. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely puts it,

Trying not to think about something is one of the best ways to ensure that you think about it constantly. If you try not to think about polar bears for the next 10 minutes, you will think more about them in those 10 minutes than you have in the past 10 years.

Aiming itself can occasionally be self defeating, in other words. Aiming is simply not everything. It is by no means everything important.

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Let me give you an alternative way of looking at this: Being a potter is not just one type of thing, but many. If I can be measured as ‘better’ in some respects I can also be measured as ‘worse’ in others. Being a potter is not a simple or a unified thing. So saying you are ‘better’ than before (or better than others) ignores the complexity of what you are doing and boils-it-down to some essence that may or may not have anything to do with your own ambitions. That is, it may have little to do with the complexity and contradiction between the values you take into the studio on any given day, much less from one day to the next. 

Consider that carefully.

For instance, for many of us being a potter can be seen as something like the adventure of learning new games. If we are simply playing one game, by one set of rules, with one particular way of ‘winning’, then it IS simple. But making pots is rarely that simple, unless you are working at a production line. Instead, at one time we may be doing something like playing checkers: These operations with these materials with these goals in mind. And then we see something new that intrigues us, and before we know it we are playing chess: Same board similar pieces, but different moves and different objectives. (This is an important comparison)

Now if we are talking to someone who likes chess more than checkers, it will seem as if we are doing something ‘better’: We are ‘better’ at playing games because we are playing better games. And if we ourselves like this new game more we can affirm it as an improvement to our playing. Our practice is simply interpreted along the aim of the relevant people viewing it. Our values entitle us to make this claim.

But notice here that what we are measuring with is how we feel about particular games. We are measuring by our commitment to the games themselves rather than an independent calibration. We are measuring with our own bias, which may or may not be fair.

That we have these preferences is entirely understandable. And that we attempt to justify our choices could not be more natural. But if we say something like “Chess is more complicated, and therefore a better game” isn’t that also arbitrary? What made ‘complexity’ the right standard to measure by? What made it right in this particular circumstance? And complexity as measured how?

What if we next learned the game of Go? Similar pieces to checkers and even simpler ‘moves’, and yet arguably the hardest game to master. We need a new standard to make claims that Go is necessarily ‘better’ than the other games. And if Monopoly is our next game, what then? Risk? Scrabble? Trivial Pursuit? What if the game is as loose as two kids playing in a sand box where there are no rules beforehand and everything is improvised and invented on the fly?

What if we are occasionally potters without precision? Sometimes even without aim? What if we are sometimes explorers instead, and ‘accuracy’ is sometimes invented after the fact of having chosen our direction? What if we simply act, and figure it out afterwards? What if our ‘justification’ is simply how we reassure ourselves after we end up where we end up?

Sort of like this:

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The point is that if we take away the notion that being a potter is simply one thing we must also dispense with an absolute sense of accuracy and the ‘better’ it entails. Perhaps also the idea of precision actually matters less in the abstract of absolutes than it does in the specific meanderings of what potters themselves decide they are doing. That is also worth considering.

We just care about different things. And so it matters what we think we are doing but also why. You can be good at chess and terrible at Trivial Pursuit. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? In chess you can be aiming at checkmate and also at a draw. Which is preferable?

There are a plurality of things worth aiming at, if aiming itself is even that important.

And assuming we are right to judge itself needs to be justified, it seems. We put the cart before the horse too often. We calibrate good and bad before we know what people are actually doing. We take our own measuring to be more important than understanding other people’s motives…. What consequences does this have?

The real world is ever so complicated. You can be aiming at just about anything it is humanly possible to imagine, and construct your own sense of precision and accuracy around those details. From the outside isn’t is simply easier to make assumptions? What looks like failure might end up as a new interesting direction. What looks like ‘success’ can be a dead end…..

 

An artist’s own understanding can be difficult to pin down. It doesn’t always work out that the ideas I am experimenting with have uses in all the contexts I apply them to. Or, the question is sometimes having specific ideas in mind and then assuming they translate into other projects.

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“I’m sure you know what ‘transparent’ means, and what a ‘red line’ means. I hope I don’t need to explain it to you… (laughter) You need to draw a red line with transparent ink.” This is what happens when we try to play chess on a Monopoly board using the rules of scrabble. Would we say that “Seven red lines all perpendicular drawn with green and transparent ink” is something ‘precise’? It sounds precise, at least, but the individually precise parts do not add up. How would we measure accuracy in aiming at this target? What would ‘aiming’ even be like here?

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Lots to consider! Big questions rarely have simple answers. Sometimes a better understanding is the one that leaves you with fewer illusions, even if the things that remain are not as sparkling and absolute as what we had hoped for. As Julian Baggini puts it, “Clarity of thought often replaces vague confusion with bewildering complexity. Better understanding just leads to a better class of headache.”

Peace all!

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Posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Wittgenstein | Leave a comment

Six Friends show at AKAR

If you know me you know that I don’t do a lot of self promotion here on the blog (This is a guy who as a kid used to hide under the table as his friends sang Happy Birthday to him). But It turns out that I am in a show, with some friends, and I’m honored to be there with them. It would be ‘unfriendly’ for me not to promote their work, because this is in fact a really great show. Let me show you how great:

Kyle Carpenter

Scott Cooper

Scott Cooper again

Michael Kline

Ron Philbeck

Brandon Phillips

Brandon Phillips again (If no one buys this in the next few days I am all over it! (I am doing my best to resist buying from this show so that other people get the chance, but I won’t be held accountable for the failure of the audience to *do*the*right*thing*))

Make sure to look at the pots in the 360° rotation view!!!!! The new AKAR site has done all sorts of things to improve the user experience, in addition to the images on a non-gradual background.

Check out this show!!! Plenty of great pots still up for grabs.

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Posted in Ceramics, Pottery | 4 Comments

Branding

Written after reading another shameless suggestion that artists NEED brands. And apologies in advance for being such an ass. I think brands are just fine for the people who do prefer to work that way. That can be an honest and honorable preference. I respect that. What I resent is being told this is the natural way to make art or that it is somehow necessary. That is an attitude I will fight with my dying breath….. Forgive me, please, if I go a bit overboard in making the opposite case.


“A good simile refreshes the mind.” Wittgenstein

It is no coincidence that ‘branding’ is something they do to cattle to identify who owns which animal. It is seared right there in the flesh. No mistaking that….

The difficulty with branding humans is that we are changeable and driven by multiple purposes. It is natural for us to serve many masters. It is natural to serve ourselves, and this can be many different things differently. We are beings full of plurality and contradiction. The idea that any one of us is specifically only any one thing is unnatural, especially for artists. Branding is taking a free and multifarious being and putting it in a cage. If the point of branding artists is to make them recognizable, the conceit is that they ARE simply this one thing. Branding is at best a replacement of actual understanding, not a short cut or a substitute.

You use the words ‘coherent’, ‘specific’, ‘targeted’, and ‘genuine’ to describe the attributes you deem most valuable for marketing artists, and it is undoubtedly a fact that these ideals are instrumental in selling one’s self, in putting the brand on. In a world in which markets exist marketers will have a specific insight. And yet the question remains, are artists best thought of as cattle? Consider this: When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Is being an artists a bigger issue than what marketers have a handle on?

Marketing paints a convincing picture. And yet it is a violence done to the freedom of artists in their natural creative state. Branding ‘works’ to help sell the artists at marketplace, it is an attribute of livestock, but it is an affront to the undomesticated creative spirit. Branding an artist makes sense only to get sold. Branding is not a necessary or even necessarily desirable studio practice where creativity and exploration should most be UNINHIBITED.

As you describe it, a brand is how we can best relate to an ideal audience. But making work under that constraint IS A CONSTRAINT. Our liberty is at stake. Can it really be sold this cheaply?

The task for any artist is to navigate between expression and communication. If we are only working towards the goal of communicating, maybe it makes sense to find the language and the people who speak it well enough that can relate to what we would like to say. And branding is an act of communication. It tells an audience that “Yes, you can count on me. You will get no trouble from me. I am well behaved. I have been fully domesticated. I am safe.” To the extent that this is our goal, we DO need to communicate effectively with our audience. There is a place for brands in that.

Branding is a marketplace seal of approval for our behavior. It certifies us: We will play by the rules. We will give the audience, our audience, what they can handle. No bucking broncos. We have been broken before the audience can ride us. Tamed. And if making money is more important to us than expressing challenging ideas, than expressing things that WILL NOT be understood, then by all means lower the neck and accept the yoke. Offer up our hind quarters to the indignity of searing flesh. This makes sense.

Because the truth about creativity is that it can be forced into these tiny boxes, it can be caged and made simple, domesticated, tractable. It can be made nonthreatening. But understand that this is a violence often done to a wild creature. It has been made docile and predictable only at the expense of its inner autonomy: The freedom to follow any trail under its own willpower. It can no longer explore the open vistas from the confines of a pen. The enclosure committed to is the antithesis of liberty. And artistic freedom is exactly what has been sacrificed, tamed out of us.

But maybe that is not so important. Not to everyone, at least. When we put the brand on we are essentially agreeing that we cannot decide to do different things, to be different people. The idea that there is some ‘one true aspect’ of our being that is revealed in the brand is what we believe, and with practice and repetition we can turn ourselves into this monistic creature.

But for many it is an hallucination. Some of us embrace our inner chaos and uncertainty. Some of us evolve. Some of us are unbound by a single sense of self. The hammer is left pounding screws.

But still, maybe its the right hallucination to have. It certainly seems that way once we are living inside the cage! Because once on the inside we have certain assurances: We are protected from the unqualified and dangerously human opportunity to strike out in new directions, to be unpredictable, to be wild and serendipitous, perhaps even to want these things.

Perhaps this is a worthy aspiration. The brand is a signal we have forgone all those wild parts of human nature. Perhaps we can be ‘better’ than our natural selves. Because to be fully human is to be many things stretched over different parts of our lives and at different times. And maybe that is asking too much. And our art, a fully human art, to be truly honest and truly ‘genuine’ would reflect that diverse and contradictory natural state. It would reflect our inner chaos.

And isn’t that the problem with art these days? There is such a thing as too much freedom. Too much chaos. Freedom can be unsafe. Freedom can be complicated. Only caged animals are simple. Only caged animals are safe.

Accepting the brand may make it easier to get fed. It may make it easier to pay the bills. But I’m not sure it will make you a better artist. Is that important? Living in a cage is only good for becoming better at living inside cages. But surely that has to be okay too? “Safe art for a safer world”?

The security of living at other people’s beck and call only works because they want something from you. Domestication is a partnership when it works. We need to be useful to earn our crusts. We need to be needed. We are our best selves as the means to someone else’s end. We are doing the right thing to position ourselves to become beholden to the people who rely on our reliability and our conformity. It is important to conform. We will not stray, as we might be tempted left to ourselves.

Working for the ranch is something very different from working for yourself. And as soon as you have a brand there will always be some outside claim on you. Accept this, lower the head, even if you still have some independent spark within you, even if you are not fully domesticated…….

There is no shame in wanting to belong. Wear your brand with pride. Celebrate it. Being part of the herd is a good place to be, for some, and maybe for most. And maybe this is why you are an artist: To belong, to be understood, to play it safe, to bear the mark of ownership, to get squeezed into simplicity.

The drovers who take us to market DO look after us, after a fashion. We might starve off on our own in the hills. We might get lost. And being part of the herd will always orient us. Our brand gives us direction. We will not be so easily confused, even if it is entirely human to get confused. We will not be variable, even if it is entirely human to be variable. We can make of our art an adamantine cage and learn these new things, especially about the caging of creativity, and especially about what tame things are most worth expressing…..

Not every human has been fully domesticated, and we are right to treat the ‘free’ ones with caution. The wilderness is dangerous and unpredictable. It is much safer inside the fence. Within the herd we can find people with whom we share values and can communicate. Outside the herd it might be rare that we will be understood. The penalty of living in the wilds is that it is not a ‘safe’ place. Values are contested. People making up and changing their own minds makes it infinitely complex. Threateningly so. Don’t we want to make art in the safe spaces?

Putting up fences is a good thing, isn’t it?

Question: Is the lion INSIDE the fence or on the outside?

As soon as we have fences we need gatekeepers too. Trusting the gatekeepers and drovers to have our best interests is reasonable, isn’t it? Don’t we like being told what to do? “Take the chute to the left and don’t mind the screams of terror.” Surely we are not smart enough to think for ourselves in all situations. Don’t we sometimes have to trust the ‘experts’? Even when they are talking about what we ourselves have to say?

The fence is there for our safety. Even if we have to convince ourselves that it is we who are telling ourselves to keep inside the fence. Don’t we appreciate the trough when it is feeding time? Isn’t it right to prefer cages?

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Again, apologies for making the extreme case, but I am fighting the idea of necessity, not the idea of legitimate preferences. If it is right to choose the wilds, it is also right to choose the safe road. The point is that we get to choose. And insisting you have to have a brand is telling you that it is not a choice. Insisting that a brand is a natural state is incorrect and deceitful. A brand may be important, but that speaks to marketing, not specifically to art.

One thing I am not doing is telling you you have to be wild. I am telling some of you that if you look honestly within yourselves you will find things other than the brand you have been marked with. Now it is up to you to decide what this means. That too is your choice….

Perhaps some of us will decide we can take vacations, carve smaller or larger parts out from our daily life in which to express ourselves. Maybe a night out. Something we do for ourselves, not because we have to. Because the dangerous thing about the marketing ideal of branding is that it pretends it is something we have to do, that it is something that is natural for us, that it is something that is right for us.

And if it turns out that for some people it is both natural and necessary, is it in fact natural and necessary for all of us? Mostly humans are bigger than any one mythology about us. The more that mythology looks like a hammer the more we should proceed with caution…..

Peace all!

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 7 Comments

The trajectory of style

Once upon a time I think I must have been a good teacher….. These are thoughts from three years ago, when I was helping to pay my bills by sharing knowledge with eager students. Distant days, I’m afraid… I can almost remember what teaching was like.

CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

I just finished teaching a course at the community arts center that was hugely ambitious but probably not as immediately useful to the students as I had hoped. My plan was that the ‘advanced/intermediate’ potters who signed up for the class would all work on finding some coherent aesthetic direction in a run of pots. Where I teach the classes mostly focus on specific techniques, specific types of forms, specific functional issues, but almost never on aesthetic considerations. So this class was my attempt to get students to start figuring out what kinds of things they liked about specific pots (or pots in general) and to see how those ideas could translate across a variety of shapes and forms.

I realized that the first day of class I would need to expose them to what other potters do that serves as an exploration of particular ideas and interests. For instance…

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“What gets you up in the morning?” and other wisdom from the Linda Christianson workshop, acts one and two

A few weekends ago I had the good fortune to attend a workshop offered by Linda Christianson. She is not a stranger to me. She was, in fact, my teacher back in the day. Could that really have been almost 25 years ago? She is also an amazing human being. She is just about the kindest most generous person I know, and her wisdom penetrates to the heart of so many issues.

The timing of this workshop could not have come at a better moment for me. I had been suffering a loss of confidence in my life as an artist, I just couldn’t see ‘why art?’ anymore. I needed someone to set me straight…. I was lucky our paths crossed again when they did.

So much of what she had to say was familiar to me from those long ago days. I was even surprised at how much of my own teachings were apparently learned at the wheel she was spinning. I’m not sure I had given her the credit she deserves for making me the potter and teacher that I am. Of course there were differences, important differences. At some point the student must strike out on their own, become their own person with their own motivations. And yet no matter how far we travel, the apple still falls from the tree. And the distance between the two only means there is still more that can be learned……

The stage is set.

Enter Linda, stage left.

Act one: What gets you up in the morning?

At one point in the workshop Ted, another of my former teachers, asked Linda “What part of the process is most fun for you?” She stopped to consider, and after a few moments replied that none of it was really that fun. Maybe this was the response I was least expecting to hear but the one that was the most important to absorb. She said, “Making pots is not fun, or at least not always fun” to paraphrase. Instead, “What is fun is the opportunity to make pots.”

In my state of crisis I could no longer see that making pots was fun, and Linda telling me that it’s not supposed to be ‘fun’ was a revelation. If it was no longer fun for me I had permission for it to not be fun. I need not expect it to be fun. I wasn’t missing something necessary nor even necessarily important. Fun wasn’t the point of making pots. At least, not everyone makes pots because its fun. Meaning could be derived from other sources.

As Linda put it, the opportunity to make pots was the thrilling part. THAT was something that could get a person up in the morning. The making of pots itself did not need to be fun. We don’t need the pressure of the making itself to be the fun part, because when it isn’t fun we would be robbed of that driving reason. We could see the absence of fun, as I then did, as indicating the reason to make pots was also absent.

‘Fun’ was a dangerous motivation to make pots. It stood on shifting sands. We might need something more solid, or if not solid, less unstable. Opportunity is merely the potential for meaning. It does not get knocked off its perch so easily. ‘Fun’ is temporary and coincidental, too subject to accidents. Fun is purely psychological whereas ‘opportunity’ is larger than the contents of our own psyches. If the opportunity to make pots is what motivates us, we may or may not make pots, but the opportunity often survives. Opportunity can be destroyed, but not as easily as fun.

End of act one, curtain closes

Curtain rises, altered setting

Artists face many obstacles. If you have listened to me drone on for any length you might get the impression that artists are alternately imprisoned in cages, puppets of their own branding, in need of counselling, suffer an imperiled morality, need to get ‘honest’ jobs, should ditch their inevitable and shameless prostitution, run off to monasteries and subsist on bread and water, and otherwise face such overwhelming odds that it makes little sense to step outside the door each day.

Of course I never said any of those things literally. Pointing out you could catch a cold from being in a room with strangers does not mean we already need a course of antibiotics. Observing that crossing a street could get us mangled by a speeding car, doesn’t indicate that we already need drastic surgery before the first step is taken. Pointing out the possibility of consequences is not an argument that we need to treat the world as though it already suffered these debilities. Just that we should be cautious crossing streets, and that we can later look for the signs of a lingering cough and a runny nose. We have been warned. Possibility is important in the same respect that opportunity was in act one.

Act two: The least among you shall be the greatest and the greatest the least

Linda sits at the wheel and gazes out at the audience

An obstacle I have not done much work in framing came up as Linda talked about putting handles on cups. She told us, “Find the worst one and try to make it the best, and find the best and treat it as nothing special.” I think if we are serious about our art these are ideas worth hearing. We could, alternately, find the worst and simply discard it. We could also find the best and put it on a pedestal. We in fact do these things all the time. So why did Linda ‘caution’ us to (sometimes at least) do the opposite?

When we later had a chance to converse she explained that for her one way to keep engaged with the opportunity was to “make a game of the next step.” In this way each little grouping of pots was treated as a family unit and they could be organized best among themselves. The focus would be on progressing the group of pots instead of some independent aspiration: Helping the family thrive rather than sending Johnny off to college.

I took another lesson from this, knowing my own temptations, and because it is rare that I would treat the group of pots as their own unit. I get distracted by ideals. Because human nature often plunges us headlong in the direction we are already going. If we value the least and the worst poorly it become easy to dismiss these things and not have the chance to learn from them. If we do not attempt to transform the worst into the best we have no idea what its potential value is. Its bad. It can be discarded.

Similarly, by only valuing the best we… only value the best. These are two sides of the same coin. Linda was cautioning us, again, not to get carried away in promoting only ‘the best’. We too often make too much of it. It is a gallery game rather than a studio game. It makes our world a more shallow place. It pretends that the only things worth considering are the ones deserving acclaim. We need to remember to see the world with more depth. And the game of seeing a group of pots as a family unit is one such step. It places nuance where idealization might otherwise stand.

And so, “Make the worst one be the best, and treat the best one as nothing special.”

End of act two, curtain closes

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Posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 2 Comments