Repost: Maximum Beauty

From March 19th of 2015:

“Often, stepping into another artists’ home is like a reassuring brush with the truth that we’re not the crazy ones; that it’s the rest of the aesthetically bankrupt world that’s got it wrong. I love that.”  – Scott Cooper reflecting on his visit to Michael Kline’s

In a recent post I examined how the things we don’t like often get that treatment as a result of our own inexperience. If ‘Try it, you’ll like it’ sometimes makes the difference then our unfamiliarity is just as often a source of suspicion and dislike. Everything from a new type of food to music we’ve never listened to before has a prejudiced hurdle it needs to climb before we can uncover what there is to like. We simply gravitate toward the things we already know (and like). That’s just human nature. And we steer clear of the things we don’t like, but often we don’t like them because we don’t trust them. We don’t yet know what they are offering, so we rush to the judgment that some test has been failed. We make the lazy leap from unknown to unloved.

It is interesting that over time we can change our opinions. Things we didn’t like can eventually become the standards of what we now do like. But what has changed? One answer is that we now know more about what that thing is and the magic of its beauty has been revealed to us. We have unlocked its potential. The closer you pay attention the more you get to see the value of what we are looking at. Its as if there were a tipping point in our exposure that transmutes the disliked into the liked. And it can seem like a magic transformation if we are observing closely. Like pulling rabbits from a hat, “Where did thatcome from?”

Which makes sense to me. I’ve always wanted to believe that if we simply knew more we would uncover the hidden beauty that surrounds us. We would learn to see the world with new eyes by peering closer and attending to the nuance. I’ve always wanted to believe that seeing beauty was a cumulative experience. That seeing these beautiful insights was a quantitative step taken with the right sort of understanding. If we but learned to see the world as containing these surprising instances of beauty our world would be forever transformed. Its like getting the keys to a car we can now drive.

But its also true that we can change in the opposite direction as well. We can now dislike what we formerly adored. But what has changed? This is not the scenario where we dislike things because we don’t yet understand them. In fact it seems that we occasionally now dislike these things because we have learned even more about them. Its as if we were wrong to love them the way we did, and only now understand the error of our ways. “What was I thinking?” We had a partial glimpse and were deceived into liking what we had no business liking. “If only we had known the truth we would have been spared the indignity of our misspent fondness.”

But doesn’t that sound strange? We can’t usually help the way we feel, and if we like something, that is often the end of the story. If we truly dislike it are we not entitled to have that feeling too? What does knowing more really have to do with it? Liking and disliking are hard facts of our emotional life, and they are true feelings regardless of the contingency of our understanding. ‘Love is blind’ and sometimes we’d rather have that love than know all the gory details. The love itself was real whether the thing loved was truly represented to us…..

But then sometimes knowing too much makes it impossible to continue loving. When I found out my Air Jordans had been made with child labor I no longer felt the same way about them. When I learned that Bill Cosby is a sexual predator he went from my favorite Philadelphian, a hero, to a zero. Some facts are simply hard to swallow without changing us, and understanding some truths is a straight jacket for our feelings. In other words, with the lens of the right facts we are inescapably seeing the world as something specific.

Take, for instance, the duck/rabbit:

duck rabbit

Or the young lady/old lady:

young lady old woman

When we see things as something specific its often true that we can only see it in that one way at a time. One way of understanding it contradicts the other: If its a rabbit its not a duck, and vice versa: if its a young woman its not an old lady, and vice versa. It can be both things but not all at once. There can be a mutual exclusivity to how we appreciate things.

And so when we see beauty we get that the world has this beauty because we see it in a particular way. But then the difference isn’t always an accumulation of insight but the particular quality of the insight itself. We don’t see the beauty by simply seeing more about these things, we see the beauty because this is how we see it. And seeing things differently isn’t just the addition or subtraction of knowledge but adopting an independent frameworkfor making our judgment. Understanding isn’t necessarily additive when the things known are incompatible or cancel one another out.

The truth is that many understood things hang together for us, and that given how much we already see through the lens of a particular kind of framework we are simply incapable of coming to see other particular things with the same kindness. Not at the same time, at least. You can’t be a member of the Sharks and also love the Jets. You can’t be a progressive Democrat and listen to Fox News….. Sometimes those things are so incompatible that bringing them together in one mind at the same time would be like joining matter to anti-matter: We would annihilate ourselves in the collision.

But I have higher hopes for beauty. Perhaps we don’t need to hold inconsistent and contradictory things in our minds at the same time, but can see the value of each on its own in its own time. F Scott Fitzgerald said “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional” but maybe its not necessary for everyone to have this particular creative capacity. Maybe we can just be inconsistent serially? Aren’t we that way already? Its like we were an instrument. You can’t play more than one tune at a time, but you can lay down some Led Zeppelin before heading off to a Bach Cantata. It depends on how the instrument is tuned, and being tuned in a particular way gives us access to particular sorts of things we can play. But what is interesting is that we can also retune or recalibrate ourselves to see different things in different ways. Just like in the case of the duck/rabbit.

So what I’d like to propose is that we take our lesson from these two images, the duck/rabbit and young lady/old woman. So what if I like Classical Music? Does that mean I can’t also learn to see the value of Hip Hop? So what if I like salty foods? Can’t I also find something to like in sweet and sour, or tart? So what if Green is the color that moves me the most? Can I not find the hidden joys of yellow and purple? So what if I really get impressionist painting? Can I not also see the potency of abstract expressionism?

Which is not to say that some things are still not worth disliking, only that we rarely cross that line without the prejudice of some other bias hanging over us. We can come to know our dislikes better. We can explore them, mull them over, roll them around on our tongue, fix them with our gaze, wrinkle our nose up and take a big whiff…. We don’t have to be so ignorant about our dislikes. And maybe just then we can also open a few doors that we thought were closed. Perhaps we will stumble into some things we had overlooked and be suddenly struck with the wonder that is now revealed. Isn’t that worth aiming for? And the truth is that the world holds many such surprises for us. Just ask anyone who sees things differently than you. Isn’t the potential for our amazement just… amazing?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 1 Comment

Don’t hate me because I’m pretty

Brandon Phillips' pretty pot

Brandon Phillips’ pretty pot

“It’s not often that I make “pretty” pots. But I really like what this glaze does over my bright white slip.”

Isn’t it interesting that some potters avoid making pretty pots? They could if they wanted to. Quite easily, in fact. But for whatever reason they have chosen to aim at something other than pretty. And that has to be alright. Not every pot has to be pretty. They can be alarmingly beautiful without affecting ‘pretty’. The question we need to ask is whether avoiding pretty is itself a goal or the side effect of aiming differently.

If you cook and serve meals without using salt are you aiming at bland food or is the blandness a side effect of some other reason to not use salt? Are there other flavors hidden in too subtle ways for us to make easy connection with? Is what we perceive as blandness not always the lack of taste but the absence of overpowering tastes? Salt may heighten perception, but it also obscures. We can become sensorily jaded.

Salt is too easy on the palate. Pretty is too easy on the palate. The human temptation to believe ‘What You See Is All There Is‘ makes us blind to difficult nuance. Salt and pretty swirl around us and make certain things stand out, but only at the expense of subduing quieter or humbler accents.

There is nothing wrong with pretty. I am thankful for it. But it is not everything. We should not dumb things down by surrounding ourselves with only the prettiest. We miss too much if only the pretty survive. There is more to the world than pretty.

So don’t hate me because I’m pretty. Simply learn to love a wider range of things than the pretty. Educate ourselves to the strange hidden and unexpectedly perplexing beauties that also surround us. Don’t settle only for the obvious in your face qualities. Search deeper. Look wider. Wait until you understand more before casting judgment. If there is a crime pretty perpetrates its that we are urged to make quick judgments. Because its easy. It teaches us not to work hard for beauty. Pretty casts a vote for simple and easy. Its lazy.

We should be thankful of pretty because there are times to be lazy. Just not all the time. Just not now. There is too much at stake to sell ourselves to simplicity and obviousness.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about how and why people misunderstand each other. We can’t learn the way others see things unless we take the time, suspend our own judgment, and earn our impressions. Pretty is a shortcut. Sometimes shortcuts are necessary. But life is not a shortcut. We know less than we think we do, and every time we settle for what we think we understand we can be guaranteed we are not getting the whole picture. Certainly not with the things that seem most obvious to us. They are the blind spots we have. Their obviousness is blinding.

Beware the pretty, but don’t give up on it.

Things to think about, at least….

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 3 Comments

Score one for the teacher

Unconventional pitcher

Unconventional pitcher

“Oh Carter, looking at this I’m reminded how so grateful I am that you taught me that a shape like this is a beautiful thing (and not a fail).”

A recent student made that comment seeing this pitcher posted on fb. I’ll take it as a testament to how good a job I’ve done to help at least some of my students to see the broader range of beauty. If there is one thing I hope I can leave my students with it won’t necessarily be the potting skills and techniques of their hands in clay, but the conceptual evolution of how they are able to see the world. If I can help them see the possibility of beauty in unexpected places, for them to not simply accept that beauty looks this one way and nothing else, then I will imagine I’ve done a good job.

The truth is probably that my student would previously have looked at that pitcher and found it ugly. A ‘fail’. At best it would have merely been uninspiring. As many of our pots seem to be when countless members of the audience walk by our booths with their noses in the air. The failure, if there is a failure, is not in the form itself but in the audience’s ability to make sense of it. The fail is not the property of blame apportioned to the pitcher but to the audience.

Its like saying that a person speaking poetry and philosophy in Latin is a fail because the audience has no clue what the words mean. Not everything expressed has to communicate, because the language it is cast in may not live in each member of a potential audience. And it is okay to use languages that others don’t yet understand. The value you are expressing is not simply a side effect of how well it has been understood. You can say important things, and NOT be understood. And you don’t need permission to do so…..

In the end, if there is a failure surrounding artists and the arts its that we have less curiosity than we should. The failure is perhaps that we are too confident of our own choices and do not admit the equal standing of others’ conflicting choices. Trying to see what those choices were, trying to understand how they come to have the value they do for others, is the exact flip side of our own position in the eyes of a judging audience. We should have the humility to admit that while we may not have made the same choices, often they were done for good reasons. Just not our reasons. We might not ‘get’ those reasons until we can adequately put ourselves in their shoes. And we will never do that unless we are open minded enough to see the world beyond the security of our own convictions.

Convictions belong to convicts, and convicts live behind bars. While it may be safe inside these cages, the question remains whether there is more to life than playing it safe. Not every conviction we hold is justified, and not every justification actually matters. Find the beauty that is hidden by our own lack of ability. Stay curious. Exercise beyond the limits of the known. Go broad. Go deep.

Things to think on!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Simon Levin to critique Andrew Linderman’s mug on Monday

Hey all!

My forward thinking buddy Simon Levin will kick off a great idea this coming Monday (4/18/16 at 9pm EST) on Periscope (@woodfire). Potter Andrew Linderman has sent him a mug to critique, and Simon will conduct the examination live, with comments and questions from the viewers (since that is how Periscope works). Tune in live, or catch it in the window the video stays up on the site.


I’ve missed all but a few potters’ shares on Periscope but this one sounds like a great experiment. As Simon puts it in the video, self critique has been an invaluable part of his own evolution, and its something that the clay community isn’t always set up to do well.

Self critique is somewhat different from the critique of another person’s work, but the idea is that understanding what we are doing and why we do it is not always obvious, even to the maker. It gives us the ability to ask “Should I be doing it this way?” and expect a considered response. Questions we ask ourselves and questions others ask us can tease these things into the light and make those parts of our process less taken for granted if not occasionally more intentional.

Knowing more about what we do and why we do it frames these things as options. We don’t necessarily have to do it this way, unless that is the important thing. If its not, knowing it gives us the option to do it differently, options we may not have known we had. We should not just do what we do because we are too lazy to question it or too ignorant of possibility to see beyond the safety of our comfort zones. Laziness and ignorance are not the virtues of an artist any more than they are of any other thing a human can do with their lives…..

Its not that there is a right way of making your pots, necessarily, but that there are options. Unless you know what your options are the decisions you make can be very poorly informed. Its like you are sitting at a table in a restaurant and the waiter hands you the kids menu by mistake. If you don’t know any better you may end up ordering only from those options.

The truth is that with our art the options far exceed our wildest imagination. Keeping ourselves in the dark, simply because this is the way we do it, this is what we’ve always done, it just seems right to do it this way, its like we content ourselves to order from the least expansive menu available. Its settling for less than we can do. Its a choice based on a tiny sample size. Its a lesser version of ourselves than it could be. Its not us putting our best foot forward.

The evolving artist always (periodically, at least) questions whether there are better ways of doing it. Its a perpetual critique of means and ends. Its the dissatisfaction of a grain of sand that makes us work harder, until wisdom grows, and a pearl of unprecedented quality forms. Critique is necessary if we want to move beyond the limits of our self satisfaction.

It doesn’t have to be painful. You are not ever doing things wrong, but you may be selling yourself short. You could be doing things better, not in some objective sense, but in terms of your evolving understandings and taste (See my previous post). The purpose of critique is that you ARE evolving. We start out as primordial ooze, and after mutation after mutation dinosaurs now walk the earth, and fish swim the ocean. As time passes and things continue to change mammals inhabit the trees and plains and birds soar the skies.

Evolving doesn’t mean there is one right way to be. There are millions of possible directions things could end up, each one fascinating in its own right. The possibility is truly amazing! The point is that creativity allows things to be different. If we truly don’t want to change, then we have no business thinking about our work or caring what other people have to say. But if we are open to different possibilities we have given ourselves permission to evolve. And if that is your desire, this process of critique is what you need.

So tune in to Simon’s event, and see what questions he finds interesting!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 3 Comments

Is the difference between beginners and experts simply a difference in quality?

It seems about time that I reposted this here…..


I’m interested in this question as a reflection of how we teach art, what we teach, and why we teach. It also seems important for artists navigating the larger world of the art industry. Its only a question for artists trying to find their place in a larger context. Its not something that would interest the hermit artist on a mountaintop, or even many beginner artists. Its not a question that children always ask when they pick up a crayon……. What does that tell us?

Imagine this scenario: You’ve spent the last 30 years honing your art practice, perfecting your skills, improving, tweaking, and refining your forms, and you enter a show where beginner level work wins all the prizes and receives all the public attention. What went wrong? Has some objective measure of value been violated? We may feel an injustice has been committed, but what is the crime?

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Posted in Art | 1 Comment

A Short And Fanciful History Of Value

I just posted this as a response in the comments to that guest post essay I published on my friend’s ArtsJournal blog:


Something to ponder:

When I was an undergrad a professor made the point that in the ancient Greek world life was taken for granted and death was not understood. They needed to explain death. Meanwhile, in the modern scientific world life is anything but taken for granted. Rather, death/non life is accepted as the natural state of the Universe and it is life itself which needs to be explained. To the ancients the world was populated with gods and miracles. That the world is alive was a given. Today we know that most of the universe is dead. Life itself is the miracle. We accept the inert foundation and admit that life itself is the exception. And it seems a much better explanation than the Greeks gave us.

But today’s world is also much more complex than things were back then. There is so much more to know, things to do, and places to be. The more we encounter the greater our need to make sense. There are still things we take for granted and others we feel the need to explain. And possibly its true that we take some of the wrong things for granted. Possibly its true we look for explanations where there are none. But this is how we interact with the world. What the world means to us is predicated on how we interact with it, what we are doing, what we believe in, and where our interests lead us.

Value is one such thing that plays a role in our lives. It is understood only so well at times. We take some things for granted that may not be wise and we question other things that require no explanation. Here is what I like to call “A Short And Fanciful History Of Value”:

Nothing is all there is. Is isn’t. The Big Bang explodes the universe into being. Matter spins out from the center. Stars coalesce, galaxies form, and bits of matter cool and become planets. On one or more planets the climate moderates to where an atmosphere forms. Waters pool in low spots on the surface. Billions upon billions upon billions of years pass, and then life forms. Something new. Quickly life spreads out and diversifies, mutating into a plurality of forms, becoming larger, and moving to new environments, adapting to different circumstances and evolving from suitability and disposition. Consciousness quickly follows, and self consciousness exerts itself among a select few. Species become social. There are now herds, schools, prides, and families. Among some few cognitive development turns to reflection. Instinct and self awareness are joined by abstraction. Social forms and non biological situations become more a matter of choice, and with it the Universe is introduced to caring. Some things now matter. Basic needs, instinctual desires, and other primitive biological functions now have to contend with reasons. The Universe welcomes value to its list of accomplishments. Beings begin caring about pragmatic things, not only what is good, but what is good for the good things. Beings invent ends and means. Culture grows up around the values that are held and the practices which manifest them. These beings continuously invent a bizarre array of things to believe in and practices to enact what they believe. The gods become known. Tribes become political. Wars are fought because different groups can’t agree what things constitute value. Populations spread and misunderstanding proliferates. The world becomes ever more complex and our values more complicated. Humans lose sight of where these values came from. The end.

When I hear that the arts do not have intrinsic value it seems what is being said is a fact about the arts. A fact like “Cats don’t have wings”. It seems to be something put forward that we should be able to check. You pick up some art, look at it, feel how heavy it is, check the density, and conclude that it lacks intrinsic value. Or perhaps when it is said that the the arts do not have intrinsic value it is meant as a logical impossibility. Like saying that numbers don’t have mass. More scientists in lab coats get together, study the problem, and determine rightly that it was never capable of intrinsic value, by definition.

The history of value may tell us otherwise. Whether the arts have intrinsic value or not isn’t a fact about the arts, its a fact about us. It asks the question “Do WE value the arts intrinsically?” When you are looking for intrinsic value you do not check the status of the world, you ask people: “Do you believe the arts have intrinsic value? Do the arts have a place in your life that does not require them to be justified? Do you treat the arts as worthy in themselves? Do you believe the value of the arts needs to be explained? Are the arts something alive for you, or are they dead?” What we are looking for is a system of beliefs, a culture.

The Short And Fanciful History Of Value suggests that it is WE who bring value to the world. It is WE who make of the world something valuable. It is our actions and our beliefs that invent value for the world. Culture is the propagation and manifestation of these values. And the things valued can be anything. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, only to those people for whom it matters. Some people throughout history have worshiped or venerated the spirits of their elders. This is what they value. This is what they do. We don’t need to check the Aether for ectoplasm. We need to ask them, “Is this what you value?”

When the Universe is mute on value it is humans who need to tell the stories of why certain things matter. This is not exceptional or unusual or unexpected. If you are looking for value you ask people. You look at a culture as evidence that these things are taken seriously. It can be anything. I repeat, anything. The arts are no more preposterous than anything else. And if you believe in the arts it can seem entirely reasonable that they should require no explanations, no justifications. Doubt is misplaced if we imagine this is a factual condition of the arts themselves. When people behave as if the arts mattered, the arts matter. Facts may tell us the world is not always as we imagine it, but if no one behaves as if something mattered, if no one actually cares, that is the only evidence a thing has no value for us.


My original essay was a doozy, but if you have the time and inclination you can read it here:

Things to think about…..

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!



Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

Of building blocks and blockages

My friend Liz Crain just ran a great post on the creative deep freeze, and in it she throws around a few blocks by asking the question of whether the winterlull was not in fact some different form of creativity. Her conclusion is that what can seem like a creative block is at least occasionally a formative period of gestation and incubation. The blockage, in other words, is also a building block.

The gardener opens a small hole in the dirt and shoves a seed into it. The seed blocks the hole, stops it up, and gets covered with more soil. The seed itself becomes blocked. But the blockage of the seed is itself the building block of something new and different: A plant!

Someone is hiking a trail and comes upon a fallen boulder blocking the path. The way forward is obstructed, but if the blockage is surmountable the hiker can get not just to the other side but start climbing up the hill from which the boulder came. The blockage is itself incentive to divert the course and traverse paths new.

Similarly, a damn is built that stops up the stream. Its a blockage that forms a lake, something new and different. Occasionally also that flow of water finds a new escape, a new path to descend into the valley, a different course from the well worn one that became obstructed.

Michelangelos angel

Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” The block contains within it the possibility of something exquisite. The block stands in the way of that thing, the unnecessary parts must be removed, but without the block you really have nothing. The block itself is necessary because it contains the things that are essential to the way forward. No other thing does, in the same way or to the same extent.

The lesson for us creative types is that our blockages may seem like the end of progress, and sometimes they truly are, but they are also often the very building blocks of something new. The illusion is that a blockage is just an end, just an impediment. The difficulty manifests when we see our objective just as a product and not as a process. The end itself is no more than fertilizer for something else.

When that tree dies we can mark its passage. We lament the doomed product. There is a failure embodied in blockages and ends, but this is only a small part of the story. Its a shortsighted person who looks no further and fails to see the food for worms, the eventual soil it becomes, and the foundation it provides for new life and new growth.

The advantage of being creative is that we see not only the value of the way forward but the importance and necessity of obstructions turning us aside and endings that transform things. The advantage to being creative is that inside almost every blockage there is a germ of possibility. It is our privilege to see the Angel in the raw block.

In the same way not understanding a thing can be the opportunity to learn something new. Our failure is not just an impassible obstruction, and its not a signal that there is nothing to understand. If we can admit there are different things to understand and different ways of understanding we become open to the many Angels hidden withing the mute stone. We become capable of turning our ignorance into glory. A failure to understand is an opportunity to transcend ourselves. And we should accept those challenges rather than turning from them.

Its the lesson of blockages and building blocks.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Teaching | 2 Comments