Understanding and Knowing

I saw it, briefly, last night. Or rather I heard it. The settling dusk making my trips out to the kiln carrying freshly glazed pots even more treacherous, my nose firmly to the grindstone of beating full darkness and the chill that was spreading, I had no other thought but finishing my task and the insistent rumblings of hunger that had started an hour or so earlier. But finish I must, and so I bore down.

And then I heard it. Somewhere, somewhere close, a neighbor had their door open. I knew that sound! Was it an accordion? Someone in my neighborhood was playing some instrument I could recognize but not easily name. But the sound. I knew that sound! And in that moment my heart swelled with a passion I had been missing for the past week. I understood that sound! I was listening to a neighbor pouring their own soul into one of the songs from the Amélie soundtrack by Yann Tiersen, an album I had listened to over and over again in days gone by.

Heart suddenly beating, I quickly placed the pot I was holding where it belonged in the kiln and strode off into the night, up the driveway, out searching for the faint notes hanging in the air, coming from where I knew not. I had a neighbor who plays the tuba from his rooftop, but that was to the right and this was coming from the left. Was it Ben? The former rockstar drummer from the Counting Crows? A dozen or so steps in that direction and I could rule him out. Not his side of the street. But there it was! The lights were on, the door was open, and the sounds were definitely from that direction. My heart thumped with excitement.

And then the notes faltered, and with them my feet. I stood in place, halfway down the block, fearful that if I moved again the spell would be broken, the magic lost, hoping for more, but the sounds petered out and came to a halt. I waited a few minutes more, but it never took back up again. The door to that house eventually closed. And then I remembered the cold. I remembered the growing darkness, my lack of food, and the need to get my kiln finished. The world returned to me in all its crushing beseeching neediness.

But for one brief moment I had understood again. I had understood that there is something worth more than the daily grind and our fixation on what is wrong with the world. I understood the beauty that has been lost to me in recent days. It was there, nurtured for a brief moment, cradled in ephemeral hands. And then it was gone…..

I know the power of art. I am just having trouble understanding it right now. Its not an intellectual problem, it is a problem for the spirit. The spirit trembles on unseen winds. And if we are not careful, it will perish. If we take our eyes off it for too long, fail to nurture and encourage where these things live and are born, we may end up losing them. Among the many horrors we face, that too must be confronted.

For the past week I have felt like a fraud artist. I was lucky I had already made the pots I was to fire, so my creative investment had mostly already been cashed in. All I needed in this last month before the sales was to glaze and fire, glaze and fire, glaze and fire, up at 3, to bed at 8, up at 4, to bed at 9…. I will get my mojo back. I know too much about beauty to let it die in me. I have too much invested to let it wither. But will I understand it again soon? I simply don’t know. The brief spell of my neighbor’s serenade made a difference. I simply need to recapture it from where it has hidden.

But here is to all of you out there who are continuing to make the world bright. And especially also to those of you who encourage beauty by supporting the artists that make it come alive. We need your belief and we need your support. Thank you sincerely. Beauty will not die while you are creating homes where it belongs. Beauty will not die on your watch. And for that the world owes you a debt. If beauty is going to still matter in the world that is to come, we owe it to ourselves to make it as realizable as we can. Beauty is one of the world’s gifts to us, and the more we cherish it the more our humanity is rewarded.

Who better to make that case than Amélie?


Peace all,

Make beauty real. Yes, please do.


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

Does art even matter?


Like for many of you, I am supposing, something significant about the world changed last Tuesday. Values for society and our communities were suddenly brought into question. Many seeming certainties showed the fractures of doubt. Not that we believed they were suddenly wrong, but that we were shown a large portion of the voting public would flout what we held as obvious. And maybe some other things simply mattered more to them, but we were ominously confronted with the facts that much of what we hold dear is not even in the sights of many other people. Those things just don’t matter to them the way they seem so obvious for us.

And so lately I have been awash in the misery and confusion of my friends. Many are fearful, and it seems justifiably so. The undercurrents of racism and sexism that society has had to struggle against are seemingly condoned from the soon to be highest levels. Endorsed even, if we accept that leaders lead by example. Certainly a blind and forgiving eye is being turned to misdeeds that would under normal circumstances find condemnation. Hate and fear tactics are being emboldened. Where have those other kinder values disappeared to? The angst among my friends witnesses the uncertain times we are stepping into…..

And the timing puts other, perhaps less urgent values into question for me. I am gearing up for my seasonal pottery shows, but somehow the significance of what I’m doing seems to pale. Just as was evidenced in the election, I am asking myself if some other things simply matter more. It is a question now whether art really counts when so much else needs correcting. Is there a place for art when fear is our close companion? When the hopelessness, joblessness and intolerance that drove many voters is an issue that will either make us or seemingly break us?

I find I am asking myself these questions personally, that what inspired me as an artist actually seems insufficient. There are many realities I never fully appreciated until last week, but they are being impressed on me relentlessly. And I want to know. The long held public perception of ‘art’ has been that it is a luxury. Now more than ever before I understand that claim.

For years I have watched as the response to art’s lack of value in people’s lives has been to haul out the metrics and data points to ‘prove’ that the arts are good for the economy, the arts are important for cognitive development, and the latest darling that the arts are significant for ‘wellbeing’. What I am seeing is precisely the abstract discourse that lost the Dems the election. Appealing to people with the facts simply did not matter. Our own dearly held values did not matter. People were not going to be sold on abstractions and values they neither held nor sometimes even comprehended.

People were moved by an appeal to what matters most in their own lives. Hilary may have been the consummate politician, but that is precisely what cost her. People were actually turned off by politics as usual. The ‘outsider’ was itself an appealing quality. We elected a man with NO previous public office and NO record of service. She was also facing a con man, and rather than resorting to the facts and to actual policy or even actual experience, Trump was able to make his case by appealing psychologically. As all successful con men do, the public who elected him were often sold on what they wanted to hear…..


Moving forward I see two challenges that have been framed by the new situation. One is the continuing struggle to bring the value of the arts to a wider more inclusive audience. But the conditions of that appeal have certainly changed. The role of abstractions and data has been undermined to an extent that must be shocking to some. Rational persuasion may have to accept second status to more fundamental means.

And as my friend Diane Ragsdale suggests, the ambition itself may also need to change. She posits, “we arts workers will need to let go of the notion upon which many nonprofit professional cultural organizations were founded: that we exist, essentially, to save the world with art.” Selling the arts as saving the world through means of the economy, cognitive development or wellbeing, is simply a nonstarter. We have always aimed high, and the temptation might be to aim even higher, but what we need to learn is to aim lower. Aim like Trump aims, perhaps. Aim for what actually matters to people: Their lived world, their actual lives, what they care about, what things matter to them. Its not a con if we believe it too.

Which brings me to the second challenge, one that I face more personally: How do we even make the case for art mattering to the people who already knew its value? The coming month literally earns me around 70% of my yearly income, but even I am having trouble justifying the need for art. My enthusiasm for selling pots is never above life support, but right now it has flat lined. I have unloaded my kiln three times post election, seen around 150 new pots enter this world and I’m just asking myself whether the world needs more mugs…..

I’m just not feeling it, and I can only hope that in the next week and a half I can find reentry into the world where that value lives. I am living in a parallel shadow existence where all the furniture is the same but everything has been stripped of value. I am unmoved by things that in my other existence inspired me. All is muted, and pales in significance.

And so its not just the world that has changed but I have changed. The world has lost its luster, but I have seemingly lost some essential part of my humanity. You either have it or you don’t. Right now I am searching, but the best I can find are mere hints, remembrances. All I’ve really got are shadows.

So that is the second challenge, to find a way to preserve or rediscover a world that is invested with mattering. My hope is that enough people remember what that world looks like. Or if they have suddenly lost touch with it they still know that it was important and continue to act as though it still were. Because, if we let go of that precious dream we really do lose something vital about ourselves. Standing on the outside now I can see it clearly: I am less a human being than I was, less than I deserve.

Perhaps the thing to hold onto is that saving the world through art isn’t about the economy or the mysterious sounding ‘wellbeing’. Rather, the world that gets saved is a world of value where humanity has color and depth, where we ourselves are more than the shadows we cast. And maybe there is more in the world that matters than art, but can we imagine a world without it? Humanity bereft of human expressions of beauty is utterly impoverished. I see that now. If we forget beauty in our lives it only seems we have forgotten something much greater: Ourselves.

As Diane concludes her post,

It’s time to walk out into our communities, with our senses wide open, and absorb “the relations between one thing and another.”

It’s time to find our humanity and help others to find theirs.

Things to think about!

Peace all,

Please, please, please, help make beauty real🙂


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 1 Comment

The Completionist

I had a realization last week: I am a completionist.

What I mean by that is that its not in my nature to get much satisfaction by leaving things half done. Sometimes its unavoidable, but when I have a choice and all other things being equal, I often find the incentive to carry through what I’m doing rather than switching things up and/or toggling between a variety of things.

Knowing this about myself its now interesting to observe my behavior. When I eat a meal I finish each foodstuff individually before moving on to the next. I don’t mix my peas with the potatoes, the gravy with the salad, the dessert with the main course. And so on. Funny habit, when you see it for what it is….

I also try to stick to viewing separate TV shows from start to finish. That’s why I always preferred DVD boxed sets over live weekly episodes on television, and Netfilx to both. If I can binge straight through an entire show, season 1 to the end, that makes me happiest.

Same for when I read a great author or a good series. My favorite authors are an ultimate incentive for completion. I will read everything they have done. I want to have a complete handle on their works. And when the latest installment of a series gets published I am as inclined to start back from the beginning as I am to just plunge in. I’d sometimes even rather reread a whole series I love than start something new.

Maybe that has some similarity to eating all of one food at a time too. Keep the taste of one thing separate and pure, not mixed up and commingled with other flavors. Dive in head first as if there were nothing else. Commit. That is what I prefer, if given the chance.

And so pottery. I’ve known it for years, but I haven’t thought too deeply about it. I like making one form and getting it worked through entirely before I move on to the next. I have two making cycles for my two big sale seasons in June and December. I start with mugs, make anywhere from 100-200, and then make bowls. I like the rhythm that approach lets me have. I can test subtle variations, try new things, change it up, without feeling like I’m starting over from scratch. I get to feel I am building on the lessons learned. Working on one type of form at a time I get to see that there is direction. A more scattered approach might hide the direction from me, not that it isn’t there for many artists, but for me a lack of mental clutter is my clarity.

Each day I start the same, with my coffee and the internet. I go through my various inboxes and check them off the list. I read all the new interesting articles, and then I respond to authors who have inspired me. I save the best for last, and communicate with friends and write the really important emails, and only then am I ready for the studio. Each day the same. Brush up on the mental and social life first, then hide out in the studio with a mess of clay and some evanescent mojo. My real purpose. Get rid of the clutter in ascending order and then devote to the thing that holds the most intrinsic value for me.

I guess if I had to sum it up I’d say that everything has to fit, everything in its own place. The better fit the better. The order is part of the fit. Complexity, skipping steps, things in the wrong order end up distracting and diluting if not in fact paralyzing.

I remember back when I was an undergrad and the courses I was taking coalesced so perfectly that at one point I thought I could write variations of the same term paper for each class. That is the sort of ideal I envision for my life, that it all makes sense in some unified way. The sense is in the coalescing, the coming together in order to create a picture. Until its time to switch gears, of course. Complete one picture and move on. Next semester will be a different topic, next phase in the studio some other form, but each in its own place, as much as can be managed. The key is in knowing when you are done, when its complete, when you are permitted to move on without penalty.

Isn’t that interesting? It surprised me!

So, how do you work? How does your life pan out? A little bit of this, a little bit of that? All jumbled together? Separate but equal? Multitasking of necessity or by choice? Hop scotching through a variety of different things? Holding the course? Competing the mission?

Its just fascinating that we all do it just a bit different, but that it is we who choose the course. It could be different, but we may have aligned other factors to make one version both more accessible and more rewarding. And its a good question whether we do things a certain way because that’s what works best, or they work best because we do them a certain way.

And perhaps knowing it is even a question allows us to have a certain freedom we might otherwise not know. Do I do things because this is who I am? Or am I this person because this is what I do? Its not an easy thing to answer, but as long as we are asking the right questions we are not as much simply the victim of our habits and our ignorance…..

Stuff to consider!

As an aside, as I was editing this I remembered the Barry Schwartz TED talk (and writings) on the paradox of choice, and how diverse options can reach a tipping point of effectiveness. Check out what he has to say🙂

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Scarface ‘talks’ identity: A question for the arts and other human interests

This is an email (apology) to my friend Joe Patti, followed by the rant (comment on his blog) that provoked it.


Hey Joe,

I just reread my comment on your identity essay and am shocked at how strident I must have seemed. Oops! I don’t want to make excuses, but I guess its a topic that strikes a nerve with me. I DO see it as vitally important that we get clearer about issues like this, and I probably go ballistic far too easily. I see it as a parallel issue to our pervasive amnesia about issues of value. Its like we have been dropped into a human life with all its attending values and identities, and we know perfectly well what we need to do, but we have no understanding of how we got there. Our understanding of using values and identities was born fully formed, as it were……

And these things crop up on the periphery of so many issues we talk about. And occasionally they are central, but because we understand them so poorly they are perennially neglected. Everything from toilets in rural India to ““I never was a part of that process” quickly became “I understand our shared goal and I want to help.”” (Where the separate “I” gets miraculously transformed into the collaborative “our”) How we see ourselves and what we believe we are supposed to do, or are just capable of doing, is always an issue of identity for us. And our own capacities are mirrored in the way the world makes sense for us. The stuff that matters is always what makes sense in particular to ourselves. Toilets in rural India, for instance……

But I apologize if my sorting through those notions in my blog comment came off a bit ranty. Talk about ‘values’ and how ‘things’ are identified! I’ve been struggling to make sense of and communicate these ideas for a number of years, and there are only a handful of folks who care about these issues even tangentially to their own concerns. I guess my frustration with the arts field in general was due to boil over at some point, and I’m just sorry if it caused collateral damage on your blog. I’m just not sure the best way to communicate these ideas at this point, except to, you know, wade in with guns blazing when the topic comes up……

So I’m sorry if I went overboard yesterday. Its only because I care about the arts field and what we do that this stuff even matters enough for me to express myself. And because I care I get uptight about our baffling inability to get our collective heads around some of these issues. But I guess it isn’t baffling in the end. Other than you, no one has been arguing against a reliance on instrumentality as a persuasive case for the arts. Most other folks don’t get it. And you have been at it and been public about these ideas for far longer than I have. I don’t know how you persevere so calmly in this sea of unwashed ignorance….. You are a damn hero in my book!

Well that all probably sounded ranty too! Darn it! Passion gets in the way at every turn!

Better stop here, but I just felt the need to apologize and to thank you, again, for being at the forefront of so many of these issues. The arts are so lucky to have you! And I’m always grateful of your efforts to challenge us to do better and to be better. Keep up the good work!



So, my friend Joe asks another of his penetrating question, a good question, about the fallout from our confusions about identity. He poses it as “a question about the ethics of presenting a group with a famous name which is comprised of few, if any, of the original members.  Just because a group has the legal right to use a name…. when does it become an issue of misrepresentation when it comes to audience expectations?….What if the conductor who is closely identified with an orchestra and creating their distinctive sound moves on?  Or even going back to the original idea, if there are 80 odd musicians who were part of the ensemble that created the signature sound of the orchestra, as each departs over the years, what is the tipping point where a new orchestra exists?”

I had this to say (if it counts as ‘saying’ that words are spoken in the midst of flying bullets) :

This is a big question, and my feeling is that we are continually tripped up by finding only simple answers. The idea that what we look for in identity is something real out in the world makes perfect sense in only some circumstances. Its not a universal calling card, however, as you rightly point out. Having the same constituent parts gives some things their identity and others not. We make a mistake when we imagine identity can be approached only on a physical basis. This is not a question of doing natural science on cultural objects. It works for us in some cases but not all.

And because this is a powerful image, that identity is located ‘out there’ somewhere, in the things themselves, we are seduced into thinking that our attention need only focus on the objects in question. We imagine, for instance, that Art is some particular thing, and that occasional things qualify and others do not entirely as a matter of measuring up, having appropriate art qualities in their make up. We appeal to this objective seeming identity when we typically answer these questions. As if the artness were located in the things themselves.

What we lack in such cases is an awareness of the functional nature of identity, how things count as something for whom and in what circumstances. Identity, it turns out, is significantly conditional on criteria of who its supposed to matter for.

So if we can’t simply look at the things themselves to tell us ‘what’ they are, we need to uncover the other conditions where identity becomes manifest. Not everything that has an identity exemplifies nature being “carved at the joints”. Rather, there are practices of identifying some things this way at some times and other ways at other times. We are not talking about identity as a manifestation of the things themselves, but as what counts when and for whom. We can’t decide that in all cases by appealing to the objective nature of things themselves, but must instead refer to the conditional nature of who says what about which things.

Identity may have a huge basis in the solidity and permanence of how things in the world come to us, but it ends up often being less about the things than what we are inclined to do with them. Its not what external ‘things’ cause us to think as much as what we think about them.

This is a big question, and as long as we are mired in imagining some necessary objective reference we will be endlessly confused about how others can see things differently and why they would do so. Agreement only means that some things matter similarly for a number of people. And the source of that agreement is not a universality of external objective qualities but a harmony between people caring about similarly grouped things. It is the human practice of mattering that stands at the foundation. We treat them the same, not because they necessarily ARE the same, but because to us in these conditions we behave as if they were. WE behave.

It may turn out that the important question is not why we treat some things the same as the understanding that we do. The foundations of human behavior and culture in general is humans navigating the world. Natural science rightly looks to the world to carve up natural things at their joints, but the navigating part is infinitely more complex and human than that. We are obsessed with looking for natural causes, and one side effect is that we presume the things which interest us are all exclusively natural entities in themselves. We lose sight of the fact that human decisions and human values exhibit a non-necessity that has spawned many ways of doing things and have evolved over history. That, in fact, is the defining moment of contingency. And we had better make peace with that if we want to get clear about some specifically and uniquely human interests.


“Say ‘Hello’ to my little friend.”

The end. Or not. YMMV. Do with it what you will. And sorry for all the spilled blood.

Peace all!

Make beauty real


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

Notes from The Land of Make Believe

The past year or more I have been tangling myself in conversations attempting to figure out how value works in human lives. We don’t like talking about it, so mostly I am met with silence or treated like a heretic. Eventually I will tie together all the threads into a more coherent offering, but until them it probably makes sense to share snippets of dialogs that express where I am going.

The Great Barry Hessenius posted some interesting questions this morning under the title “Place is more than space – Feeling uncomfortable where you feel you don’t belong and it resonated with some of the issues I have been addressing. You can read Barry’s essay (its worth it!), but the specific concerns I am interested in are as follows:

Hey Barry,

Hope you are doing well. Thanks as always for challenging us with difficult topics! Another good one today

Your post comes on the heels of a conversations I was involved in with Clay Lord about the difficulties with cultural appropriation. For me it highlighted the challenge of squaring values we legitimately hold to be right with other similarly worthy values. Is it possible that two or more virtues we esteem do not scale together, and that promoting one negatively affects our ability to promote the others? Is that what a conflict of interests means?

The difficulty for the arts in being more inclusive is just one such context. The idea that we should reach out to outsiders inevitably seems to mean we want them to become more like us in some fundamental way. We want them to value what we value. It comes to them on our own terms, so its not an equal exchange. But how would we make it equal except by sacrificing the things we wanted to share? That is the conundrum.  To gain one thing we lose the other, but to keep it we also lose what we hoped to gain. It just doesn’t add up. Either we change or they change. Something has to go…… Ideals, meet the real world!

Mostly I have been thinking of this in terms of the problems we have in promoting diversity, which emphasizes the division between things, their difference, and equity, which attempts to be fair across the board. It seems we can’t have both more than in a limited sense. Diversity fractures and equity levels. They are aspirations for us, and good things to aim at, but this does not mean they are also practical. Wanting certain things does not mean we can get them, no matter how right we are to want them. The impracticality of our ideals does not mean we were wrong in wanting them. Its the hard face of reality that all aspirations must confront. But that is the nature of aspirations, after all.

The arts are not alone in their naive assessment of values. Mostly people do not have a clear sense of the role and function of value in our lives. We take recognized goods and imagine that aspirations can automatically be collapsed into real world outcomes. Which is a dangerous assumption. We never stop to wonder why having our cake and eating it too rarely (never) seems to come off except in limited circumstances. We see the challenges and leap to the conclusion that our problems can be solved on the aspirational plane. No wonder we are stuck when we are not prepared to accommodate reality into our wishful thinking!

The first lesson in aspirational thinking is imagining what might happen. The first lesson in practical thinking is assessing what can happen. As long as we find it difficult to see beyond our own desires it is no wonder we are obstructed from reaching our goals.

Any thoughts?

All the best!


The pursuit of values can look a lot like wandering around an Escher painting. The further you get in one direction the less well it adds up with other things.


I welcome any thoughts you all might offer🙂

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


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

Don’t be a tool

Just some things to consider:

A friend picked up one of those fancy Sherrill Do-All trimming tools for me and the different design made using it as if I were almost a novice potter again. I have been so familiar with my Kemper loop tools that using them was like an extension of myself. I could express what I wanted how I wanted. Its what I knew how to do.

The interesting thing is that the new tool stopped me from expressing those things. Isn’t that interesting? I could no longer get from A to B as confidently. I no longer had the assurance that what I wanted to say could be said.

And then it occurred to me that I had become a cypher of my tool’s expression. By accepting the Kemper as my designated means of cutting feet I became a victim of its limitations and an exponent of its graces. I was making the feet that this tool allowed me to make. I was becoming a tool of my tool.

The question is, are we bigger than the tools we use, the language we speak? Yes we need a certain amount of framing for our questions to even be questions, but are they the limit of what we are allowed to speak? Are they among the inevitable permutations?

Sometimes picking up a new tool lets us know how beholden we were to the old tool. At times a tool can become our excuse for actually expressing ourselves. We say what we know how to say. The tool itself can be the vehicle for our expressions. Its limits are our limits. It can become more than the cart being led by our horse. The tool can sometimes become the horse itself. The tool can be what leads us forward, sets the tone and pace, and justifies what we do. We end up serving the tool’s qualities and abilities.

And when the ‘tool’ is the master, who precisely is the tool?

Just an interesting question to ask🙂

I am looking forward to using my new Mud Tools trimming tool and exploring the things that are uniquely possible with it. Because, the freedom to choose between different ways of doing things means that I am not the victim of a single technical possibility.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Tentative efforts with the new tool. Mostly I was using it to complement the old Kemper, attempting to learn what things it does well, what things it does better. The aesthetic aim is similar, but the foot itself is more wedgelike. The hardest part so far is figuring out how to make the broad cutting edge function.

Tentative efforts with the new Sherrill trimming tool. Mostly I was using it to complement the old Kemper, attempting to learn what things it does well, what things it does better. The aesthetic aim is similar, but the foot itself is more wedgelike. The hardest part so far is figuring out how to make the broad cutting edge function.


Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 2 Comments

Beauty is axiomatic

I just read a friend’s essay on a class she is taking described as “Beastly Beauty: The Value That Astounds, Confounds, Perplexes and Vexes Us”. Its great that folks are thinking about these issues! I totally wish I could be a fly on the wall of that conversation.

Maybe you are thinking about similar topics. If so I invite you to join me, in your own spaces or in the comments below. Lets talk about beauty. And just maybe, between us we will have a better sense of the diversity of what it means for us and for others. Here is what I have to say about beauty this morning:


One of the questions that interests me these days is the respect in which something is being measured (Why something counts as beautiful) and the respect in which it is doing the measuring (What things do we find beautiful). There is a difference that I’m not sure we often account for.

When we look at it as a case of needing to measure to find the beautiful we are looking for the ingredients or criteria that add up to something beautiful. We can make a checklist of the attributes that compose beautiful things. We get to say “This is *why* its beautiful”.

On the other hand, beauty also acts as a measure for us, and we apply it out in the world without first needing to find its ingredients or qualifications. Sometimes beauty is the axis about which our judgments turn. We have this sense of the beautiful and we go out in the world and discover where it finds a home. We judge things AS beautiful not by doing an inventory of its various qualities but by seeing beauty FIRST and then accepting that these objects measure up.

The difference is between using something as a measure and using it as a thing to be measured. If it seems like an inconsequential distinction, think of how we use a ruler to determine length. The ruler measures length. Now go ahead and measure the ruler. Do you see where I’m going with this? Some things operate axiomatically for us, and as in the case of beauty, we are not always clear what those things are and when its right to do so. When we don’t see the difference it can seem as if beauty still needs to be justified. The things we measure need justification, but the things that do the measuring ARE the source of justification.

When we fail to see beauty as a measure we assume it is something needing justification. And you know where that attitude has gotten the arts…… If beauty is not (or poorly) justified we can dispense with it. Beauty is not a fact in the way some other things are. And there are times when beauty itself is out of place. That was the conclusion artists came to in the period after the First World War. The aftermath left many feeling that aspirations of beauty were actually repugnant….. Beauty was no longer a measure worth using….

But that’s a cultural mandate. Folks had to decide against using beauty in art. So be it. But life generally tells a different story. We can’t stop seeing things as beautiful, as humans. Sure, the arts can disown it, and it can be riven from us in times of atrocity, but it is also a natural human capacity, and we seemingly need to understand it better than we do.

I just think we make a mistake when we imagine that beauty needs to be justified in some other way by some other quality. Its a common sort of confusion in a world that obsesses with finding how things can be measured. And beautiful things are no different. Our obsession is blanket. Occasionally beauty even seems to hinge on certain presences and absences. But while its true that if we occasionally removed certain qualities from an object they would no longer strike us as beautiful, that does not mean beauty is an aggregate of qualities.

(I wanted to find an image to illustrate this, so I just did a google search for images of ‘beauty’ and was confronted with oodles of dolled up white women. That made me sad, but then I thought to do a search for images of ‘beauty makeover’, which only made me sadder…. Try it at your own risk)

Even if it seems we can add certain things, do a makeover, that achieves beauty from its absence, there is no formula for beauty that holds for every observer universally. The idea that it is cumulative of certain ingredients is persuasive. Measurability is at war with subjectivity. Its the conundrum of quantitative difference leading to qualitative difference, and we have not made much headway with that, least of all in terms of beauty.

But the thing to remember is that beauty IS qualitative. So if beauty fails on the level of ingredients it also fails between different cultures, between different proponents. The lenses themselves are not without controversy. And yet we all have a sense of the beautiful, from early childhood on. So whatever the failure, its not the catastrophe it is often taken for.

Is it strange that everyone carries their own sense of what things measure as beautiful? No more than that some use ‘meters’ and others ‘yards’, and most of us at various times also approximations of ‘near’ and ‘far’, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, etc. Space is divided differently depending on what you are doing and whose measurements are getting applied. Beauty is no different, as a human activity. It simply can’t lay claim to ‘objective’ status in the way that geometry and physics calculate space….

But why would beauty need to be compared with something amenable to science? Is that our confusion? If beauty fails objectively we can’t condone it?

“The measurability rule is anchored on the above conceptions, and so requires that the variables around which the researcher intends to collect data should be measurable, or susceptible to acceptable ‘measurement’ (Leedy, 1980: 46)[1]. This is easier done in the natural sciences than in the social sciences; in quantitative studies than in qualitative. Still, one must, in the social sciences too, endeavor to quantify, measure and evaluate. Indeed, the guiding principle of the measurability rule — its corollary, in other words — is this: “What can be measured must be measured.” Thus, not measuring what can be measured is not an option allowed anyone.”  Measurability: A Key Standard of Scientific Research

In a sense, science is a way of looking at the world. Its holding up a microscope to things. Beauty is also a human way of seeing the world, but contrary to what we so often assume, its less a subject for investigation than the method of inquiry itself. Just like science is. Beauty holds its own standards up against the world.

As such it is akin to scientific truths in the way it operates for us. The role of beauty in our lives is axiomatic. Its not a test subject as much as its the experiment we use to determine the character of the world. We just need to learn to recognize beauty as the thing that justifies our appreciation rather than feeling our judgment itself needs justification. We have as much right to see things as beautiful as we do in using a ruler to measure lengths or describe a distance as ‘close’.

The totally awesome Diane Ragsdale has some truly wonderful points to make in defense of beauty. I found myself crying at times as I watched this…

Things to think about at least🙂

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 3 Comments