The interesting thing about art criticism

For all you art world artists out there.

I just read this article the other day and it reminded me why art criticism, for all the good it is capable of, continues to bore me. Read this if you are interested:

Why Do Critics Still Hate Andrew Wyeth?

Something to consider:

Criticism does not require that the thing is understood in any sense beyond provoking criticism. It is always more about the person criticizing than the work itself. The critic is reacting. It pretends to speak from authority, but at most we can grant “This is what you see.”

The magnifying lens is almost as important as the hat and beard.

The magnifying glass is almost as important as the hat and beard.

And maybe sometimes they get things right. Or right enough to lay serious claim to our interest. Occasionally that perspective is worth paying attention to, but criticism has also become an industry. And when people are getting paid to have an opinion the question is always whether the money has been well spent. Who does the job serve? Who is paying for it? Who benefits?

Unfortunately, paid opinions seem more justified the less tolerant they are. If you are aiming for exclusivity, an ‘elite’ opinion, then you have to be against certain things. The more black and white perspective needs to be the more our own bias seems required. It actually pays to misunderstand some things, so long as you can be unequivocally against them or for them. The best way to get heard, the easiest way to get paid, is to have strong opinions about why certain work sucks, even. Its easier to tear down than build up, and criticism is a litany of self-cannibalization as new darlings replace the worn out and cast aside iterations. Progress, we call it.

“The situation borders on untenable if we consider that many of the artworks that seem to attract and even demand critical writing are often also goods for sale to elite consumers. Critics of contemporary visual art have some difficult jiu-jitsu to master: examining the power relations in society on the one hand while effectively greasing the wheels of a market for luxury items on the other…. Even scathing negative reviews can be touted by galleries as evidence of an artist’s relevance.” William S. Smith, Same As It Ever Was: A Conference on Art Criticism in the Digital Age

Criticism only works when we take it seriously. Then we get to debate the opinions as though they counted, and that is the only point of having an industry of opinions: The debate, not the work itself. What gets said rather than what its said about.

Criticism puts itself in the role of being at least as interesting as the work. It tells us that in many cases the work is less important than what you can say about it. If the work is crap you’ve at least told the truth, and that truth outweighs whatever charm the work carries…… Every word used to demean some art form, to tell us its not worth our time, suggests instead that the words leading us to that perspective are the important thing to observe.

Isn’t that strange?


Posted in Art, Creative industry | 2 Comments

How to parent artists

I’m not going to tell you there’s a right way of doing it, but there are different ways. We each have to answer these questions ourselves. Only, there are values we can hold that lead us in one direction and values that lead us in others. And those are good things to think about. What kind of parent are you or will you be? And of course this is much bigger than merely the role of parent. What kind of teacher are you? What kind of friend are you? What kind of customer are you? What kind of audience are you? Even, how do you treat yourself?

The other day I heard a proud mentor express this satisfaction with one of his apprentices:

“like being caught in a really good book, that you can’t put down. I can see the seeds of their voice in clay take root.”

And then this morning a friend suggested

“It is said that you are to make the things that only you can make.”

The two messages are linked in an image of solidity, of purpose: Grow your own tree and grow it unlike anyone else’s. Yours.

Its an attractive vision: “Be true to thine own self.” It recalls ideals of authenticity and fidelity. Integrity. What’s not to admire about that?

To some the idea of voice in artists’ lives has a seeming necessity, an almost natural imperative. Just like some parents believe their kids need to have a solid career and raise a family, it is expected. We expect them to get a job, spend the next 40 plus years toiling up the ladder, find a partner, have kids, and then sail off into the twilight surrounded by grandkids and the comforts they have amassed in pursuit of their fate. We have this obligation to our parents, to society, and to ourselves. That’s the way the story goes, at least.

Those are the expectations made of most of us. There is a right way of doing it, and it looks like this: mom, dad, 2.5 kids, and a dog all living in a house with a white picket fence. Be productive this way. If you are an artist you’d better find your voice. Its almost a rite of passage, a marker for our maturity, our fitness, and success. ‘Voice’ simply expresses this ideal version of ourselves. An aspiration. Others can be proud of you when they see that voice flourish. You can feel good about yourself when you find your voice. Its an achievement. Your voice is the important thing. It is your purpose. The seed growing into a unique tree is your destiny.

Okay, maybe no one says those exact words, but they are implied in so much of what counts for ‘mentoring’ in the arts. The mythology of ‘finding your voice’ is as pervasive (and often pernicious) among artists as finding a career and raising a family seem to be for folks in general. If you are not doing these things you are doing it wrong. THAT seems to be the implication. THAT seems to be the underlying pressure we are often forced to deal with. But is it fair?

We fit into society and its expectations when we have a career, a family, and a home with a white picket fence. Artists ‘fit’ when they have this voice thing. We are considered predictable, safe, even. Mostly it never gets questioned. Careers and families abound. The suburbs exist for it. Artists with unique, iconic, voices are the standard. Galleries and collectors demand it. So it is written. End of story.

But what if this is all invented? A fabrication not a necessity? What if its a choice for us, and not a demand placed on our shoulders? What if some artists don’t need to live their lives as seedlings? What if we were not given only this one destiny to aspire to? What if the expectation says more about the people expecting than the person of whom it is expected?

What if we were instead more like the garden in which some seeds are helped to flourish and others to get weeded out? What if our creativity is more an ecosystem where crops are nurtured and harvested, each in their own time, and are rotated according to their own design? Or whim? Or desire? Just because? What if the works of an artist were more an arbitrary and contingent collection from particular fields rather than branches of a single plant? What if our purpose was not to grow this one plant but to provide a space and life for many plants to thrive?

And what if our reason for doing it was not the expectation of fitting, pleasing our parents and society, but something else? What if we sometimes cultivate our garden just to watch the plants grow? What if some things will be attended to because we can harvest them for food? Others that we can harvest for their beauty? And still others are there for what they provide to the fellow creatures we share it with?

What if making art is less about leaving my mark than simply doing what I love?

We like to think that finding a voice matters for artists, and it does. Anyone who expects something from you expects it from your ‘voice’. They think they know you, and maybe they do. Occasionally we are that simple. What they want from you isn’t an unknown or mystery, but the stuff they already identify you with. You are not an enigma to them. They know what they want. So, deliver the goods.

Coincidentally, this same week a friend received an email that said this:

“Have you really stopped making the earthenware??? I am so sad! Your earthenware was so distinctly “you”.”

As soon as what we do becomes about having a voice, we set ourselves up. Making can be less about ourselves, paradoxically, and more to do with what customers want from us. Their perception. Our voice has become our stereotype. A trap. We are linked with that form of expression, and now that others expect it we somehow owe it to them. The obligation to have a voice is not always an obligation to ourselves, strangely.

Consider: Voice only matters to the extent that it is important to be known by that voice. If it doesn’t matter… it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, perhaps, reputation sometimes outweighs even the good deeds we do. Our reputation precedes us, and its sometime hard to shake. Even when we want to change, the pressure is there to conform to a past version of ourselves that others identify as “you”. Is it our choice or theirs?

And maybe we can’t always help ourselves. Maybe this is just who we are. Not everyone is all that complicated. Not everyone wants to change. Not everyone feels that need. Some artists we admire precisely because they are transparent and unsurprising. They never stray off-course but unfailingly give us what we want. They are not inspired in unpredictable ways.

Artists can be creatures of habit, like anyone else. Maybe sometimes we are set on a track and we just keep on going, like a train on its rails. We keep to the path regardless of the distraction, the obstacles, and ignore the collapsed bridge ahead. Maybe sometimes the carrot dangling in front of us is the sum total of our motivation. Or the lash at our backs. The momentum to stay the course.

We can be that simple. We use the same voice because we have only these few things to say. We don’t know any different. There’s nothing else we want to say. There’s nothing else to say.

If its somehow what “only you can say”, if we’re worried about that, we can come up short. We can fail to be unique. And heaven help me if I repeat what someone else has already said. I’ll keep to my path and you keep to yours, for Pete’s sake! Even if that means I can’t go wandering and might get bored. Do it for Pete.

But what about the folks who don’t care if its been done before? What about the folks who have other things to say? More than one thing? What about the folks who are not set on safe seeming career paths and raising 2.5 kids but have other agendas? Multiple agendas? Diverse agendas? Their own agendas? No specific agenda, even? Just figuring different things out? What about the folks that are distractable because they are simply interested in more things than can be contained in any one path, any one voice? What if its a choice each of us faces? Is that how we usually talk about ‘voice’? Are we being sufficiently honest?

If it is a choice, we must each answer for ourselves. It depends on what things matter to us.

What if the way you express things is less important than seeing what comes out? What gets said rather than how its said? And this could be anything? A surprise to us, even? What if we were more interested in expressing this one thing here, but something entirely different somewhere else? Contradictory if we so choose? Would voice be that important to us? Would our own uniqueness even matter? Is that what our lives are really supposed to be about?

What if what we mean by ‘voice’ is actually vice? An addiction. “Get hooked on voice.” What if the mantra were instead “Find your own vice”? Are the signature habits of artists like a monkey on their backs?

Consider: Sometimes it seems we treat artistic voice as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end (diverse means to diverse ends).

Some parents want their kids to grow up as doctors, other parents want their kids to be happy. Some want them to follow in our footsteps, others to make up their own minds.

lennon on life and happiness

What kind of parent, mentor, teacher, friend, artist (etc.) are you?

Stuff to think about.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Repost: Is the value of art a material object?

First posted August 16th, 2012 as “Is the value of pottery a material object?” (See the comments there for some good discussion. Feel free to add a new thread here🙂 )


The funny thing I’ve noticed in my time among fellow artists is that very few of us would count as typical materialists. Generally speaking we tend to find that the world contains more important things than the stuff it is filled with. And yet, potters and artists of most stripes obsessively add new things to the world and almost take it as a personal mission to exponentially increase the total number of items the world includes. How many thousands of Carter Gillies original pots do I have on my conscience? How do any of us reconcile this?

The issue came up yesterday in a conversation I had with a friend who was picking up some older pots from a gallery. As is to be expected she wasn’t too fond of what she had to pack up. Any artist who is evolving, who aims at getting better at what they are doing, is less likely to look charitably at their past work. You grow as an artist and you move on. And what you’ve left behind is never as satisfying as it was once upon a time. Nor is it as welcome as what interests us now. It has lost its luster. In a sense these pots have died for us, and at this stage they aren’t much more than the clay they were made from and a distant memory of the dreams we once had….

So, in a sense I completely understand where she was coming from. I’ve been there too (in my dubious experience, almost every kiln load is a painful measure of my disappointment. Its rarely ever good enough….). And so, my friend’s comment was to the effect that there is already too much stuff in the world and that the world certainly doesn’t need more mediocre pots. Her pointed summation was that she was “not a materialist”.

So the question is, is the value of a pot (or of any art) purely that of a material object?

Well, pots are material objects, so in some sense this must connect to their value, but does art add no more than simply other ‘things’ to an already overcrowded world? Can we be against the materialism of our culture and still feel good about making pots? Even ‘bad’ ones? (How else can beginning students sleep at night, for goodness sake!)

The challenge is to see that objects bring more to the world than simply the object. I made the statement in a recent post that part of the potter’s faith is that a life surrounded by pots is a life worth living. Doesn’t that sound like something a materialist might say? Hoarding our collections like dragons in their lair….. The question is, can you not be a materialist and still think that….

Part of what it seems to come down to is a balance where the quality introduced by objects counts more than the quantity.

At what point does the beauty of a Michael Simon jar outweigh the dread impact of yet one more material thing in the world? At what point does having it in our lives tell more about its effect onthe quality of our life than the materialism of a measurable investment or status symbol? Aren’t we objecting that the materialist takes the things too seriously, too whole heartedly, that for him theyare the value? Aren’t we offended when materialists make the typical confusion between what something is ‘worth’ monetarily and what its ‘value’ is? That they often only see Dollar signs, Ducats, and Guilders? That quality for them is inherently defined by some measurable quantity?

So, what is the difference?

The question comes down to just how little beauty it takes to make the world a better place. If we measure kindness, generosity, love, and all the finer qualities of human expression we find that having it is almost always better than not having it. We also find that adding more is usually a good thing. So the question is, does even a ‘mediocre’ pot not add something unique and precious to the quality of the world? Surely it at least has this chance…. Witness the unfathomable joy of the person who takes it home with them and cherishes it for the rest of their lives. Doesn’t this speak louder than any objections? Isn’t it true that other people value even our own sorriest and unloved pots differently than we do? And that in the final analysis we are not the best judges of how well something will fit in someone else’s home? Their life?

But how can this be possible? Especially since the artist is the one responsible for giving it material form. Isn’t it up to us to decide? Isn’t that object our responsibility and ours alone?

This is perhaps the hardest lesson for artists who have truly outgrown their primitive beginnings…. Its the idea that we don’t always see the quality of our own work as clearly as other people do. Our judgments are always front loaded to the present, and the present isn’t usually comfortable with its creative past. In disowning an old pot we dismiss its claim on our values. We can overlook and ignore what others see. And when we deny its different standard of value, we can be abysmally wrong. We forget the joy we felt when we first made it. Its as if we are out of step, out of tune, with the self from out past. And what this means is that value simply transcends the pot itself….

But I would also say that the question goes deeper. I think it may very well be true that many potters see their art mostly in terms of the finished product. And perhaps this is skewed unfortunately by the role of the pot itself in a potter’s life.

I made this. Soon I will try to sell it. The object hovers between my imagination and the imagination of others. How am I supposed to measure that?

I made this. Soon I will try to sell it. The object hovers between my imagination and the imagination of others. How am I supposed to measure that?

In my post relating the admirable qualities of Olympic sport to those of pottery I focused on how similar the kinds of process were between the two. The idea was that of our art being a performance akin to an athlete’s performance in a sporting event. Linda Essig, one of my favorite bloggers andarts advocate, chimed in from her perspective as a theater person: “Yay for process! Also, intention.That’s what makes it art after all.” And perhaps it takes an artist sufficiently unencumbered by the material manifestation of creativity to see this more clearly. What we do as creative people isn’t merely the clever construction of new objects. Concrete lifeless things. We perform. We execute.

As potters it is often hard to see this. Its not that we are blind to the sometimes backbreaking process behind what we do. Its not that we are unaware of the often laborious application of technique that can mean the difference between success and failure. No…. The difficulty is rather in the sheer emotional and financial weight that goes into the object at the end of our process. If the object fails, the art fails. Or so we often suppose. And if the object sells? The art was a success…. If how we make our living is so dependent on this pot before us, no wonder we fixate on the status of our art as an object….

Its sadly all too easy to become disconnected from the execution of our art when selling our work can be so separated in time from the process of its creation. In the theater, a show is an animated performance. The art is on display as an actively undertaken process. The art is obviously a dynamic engagement. The parts are always moving. For potters a show can come weeks, months, and sometimes even years after a pot was actually made. The process that gave it birth can be so far back in our memories as to occasionally be forgotten. We don’t often remember that the pot is, in an important sense, only a placeholder for all the creative processes and technical wizardry that went into its making. We can convince (deceive) ourselves that the pot is close to everything when making a living stands or falls on being able to move product….

But if we step back from our nose on contemplation of the objects of art we can see the wider perspective of the universals of creative process. I’m an eager explorer of comparative creativity. I like to consider just how related the art of pottery is to other art forms. And even things like sport. I find connections almost everywhere. That’s one of the reasons I avidly read Linda’s blog. I am also a huge fan of the irreverent Chuck Wendig, an author and notorious balloon popper who blogs fastidiously and profanely about the creative process of writers. I also like to check in at the wonderful gatherings of source materials by the gals over at Brainpickings. And then, even, I often get a kick out of the art flavored dots connected to the stuff of food by the great blogger over at Edible Geography. The point being that art may look very different (incommensurable) from the outside, if we only consider the form it takes, the object it produces, but the human endeavors of creativity, the performances, are certainly more alike than they are different. Something to ponder, at least….

And so, I’d also like to say that it is our fascination with the pots themselves that disguise the quality they bring to the world. If we are not materialists we need to be more serious about finding the nonmaterial good within the objects we are surrounded by. That is our burden. Not simply wishing for fewer things…. If we think creativity is important, then we should be less concerned that it might end up in concrete form and more interested in what kinds of things get made. Applaud (or lament) the creativity, not the object created. As with beauty: You don’t often get it unless it takes place within some object, a gesture, the smile on a face. We each seem to have our own key for unlocking it and for finding it in strange and out of the way places. That is a precious gift. But all too often we confuse the ephemeral instantiation of beauty with why we found it so remarkable. Cherish the beauty and not the place it happens to reside (Beautiful people, after all, are not better people. A beautiful teapot does not necessarily pour better….). Kindness is the caring between one physical being and another. Its not a matter of physics but of emotional value. And so on….

We should not resent the physical implications of these values. They are not discredited by coming to us in material forms. Appreciating beautiful things no more makes us materialists than ‘dreaming’ of a better future means we are asleep….

In the end, worrying about the number of things in the world is a materialist’s concern. Worrying about the quality of the world is something quite different….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 4 Comments

Mythologizing classic art

My friend Joe Patti just wrote an interesting essay exploring the fallout of making classic works of art consumable for contemporary culture. Its the kind of issue that drives some of us in the arts batty. Both main perspectives aspire to justifiably worthy goals. Both things are worth aspiring to: Keeping it pure and making it real. So why is this so divisive? Why are we so confused about the right things to do?

I have some thoughts.

We tend to think of the product of our creative exertions as the art, as if once it gets emitted from the artist it has become this ‘art thing’ objectively manifest. We venerate these ‘originals’ as having the potential to exist through time, pure and uncorrupted, almost like a platonic ideal from the allegory of the cave. The further we move from that ideal the more things become translated and debased, the mere shadows cast on the wall. We take it for granted that the artist is engaged in the manufacture of idealized essences. We take for granted that when we understand the shadows well enough we are moving to a better understanding of the ideals themselves.

Joe asks, "Does it help people understand The Last Supper if it is digitized or parodied?"

Joe asks, “Does it help people understand The Last Supper if it is digitized or parodied?”

And for sure, the object-like qualities are very convincing. They seem solid and stable, real and persistent, and in many respects they are. They are plucked from the stream of an artist’s creativity and cast up on the shore, harvested for our consumption.

The interesting thing is that what seems finished from the outside almost never has that quality to the maker. The only reason the book got published is that at some stage it had to get sent to the printer. That doesn’t mean the writer was done with it, that the ideas used in its generation had been exhausted, or that further improvements and changes could not have been made. Its an artificial whole.

And the funny thing is that most artists I know, if you gave them a chance to take one more pass on a published work, WOULD make changes. The drafts get better, and what ends up being published is usually just the best of those better drafts. The thing we outsiders hold sacred and dear exists only in our own minds. For the artist its almost always a work in progress, even when it has already been launched out into the world. That is an amazing fact that we chronically and willfully ignore.

For some artists (such as myself), what the public gets to see is only ever sketches, because the finished version is itself a figment. The object anyone gets to see is merely what I have to show you at this time. The objects themselves are simply the transition points that get recorded, and their permanence is a feature only of having been used to get from where we once were to where we are going. We imagine we are seeing a bridge as the thing itself, but the reality is that we simply used this piece of architecture to get to the other side. We are not stopping there, but have already moved on. Its the litter we leave behind, the cast offs of our growth. Its the skin a snake sheds to become its new self. Every work of art ever is just a point on the map of where that artist is headed.

So there are two sides to that coin, at least. The mythology asks us to accept that once it has been set to type, cast off into the world, its own nature is established for all time. Written in stone. Embalmed. And in a sense that is correct. Essentially it is no longer a living thing, flopping about messily on the shore, but has been humanely yet soundly killed and put on ice to preserve. As soon as the harvest has landed on the docks it gets pickled and sealed up in jars. Hermetically insulated. Bolted in place. That, basically, is our model for considering works of art.

They are not simply whole things, they are dead things. They do not grow or evolve. They stay the same in some abstract fundamental sense. Its only the outward appearances, we suggest, that are entitled to be different. Updated. Its like looking back at the kid we were growing up and seeing the new clothes, the inches grown, the extra pounds put on, more hair or less hair, but failing to see that the person him or herself has also changed. That is entirely preposterous.

Some things are familiar, sure, but we are not the same person we were. And to us art does not have that luxury of growing up because it seems locked in time, preserved in some antiseptic unambiguous and ‘safe’ state. As if art were untouched by the real world. Everything else about culture evolves, but art objects themselves, we like to think, are transcendent. Its a nice dream at least……

Duchamp had a great insight that needs to be spoken here:

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

An art object is neither a whole thing necessarily nor is it timelessly defined by an essence. It is part of a people’s engagement with the world, and how and where they place it matters. The object is important, surely, but its not the only thing.

Yes, the dead things wind up in museums, lost treasures of ancient cultures, but are we saying that all art deserves such a fate? Maybe its better thought of as zoos, where living creatures are preserved in an almost natural environment. But if cages are better than pedestals, isn’t accepting that art walks everyday streets even better? Are we simply uncomfortable with art that isn’t dead? Have we really understood the difference between when art dies and when its still living? Have we really understood what it takes to keep it alive? Does it matter?

Those seem like important questions…..


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

Zeno’s paradox for potters and other creatives

Okay, I lied. Its not Zeno’s and its not a paradox in the proper sense. But what I want to talk about is the same sort of mental cramp that leads us to paralysis, and the paralysis is what needs to be cured.

I know it first hand, this paralyzing feeling, and from recent conversations I know other potters and artists feel it too. Sometimes getting our butts in the studio is a challenge. There are excuses we can summon, if we need to feel justified, but sometimes, also, it just doesn’t make sense to be there. Hence the paradox. When we are stricken by this curse, sometimes at least we have just lost sight of the good reasons for being there. Making art no longer makes sense. We have lost touch with something important, but what? Our inability to remember is what holds us up, and the thing that’s at stake is our capacity to function as potters and artists. We are blocked by some distracting obstacle. We are no longer truly ourselves, in an important respect.

So what am I talking about? I have three formulations I want to discuss, and it might make sense to start by asking the question posed by Jack Troy in a great poem: In the beginning, if we had known what it would take to travel our creative path, would we have still done it? Here is how Jack phrases it:


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


“If I’d waited till I actually felt “ready” to pursue my dreams, I’d never have started.” Tim Federle

Darn right! If transported back to the beginning we looked at the mountain we must climb, probably we should be daunted. Not everyone, surely, but some of us will look at the mountain and turn aside. We didn’t actually know we were climbing this mountain. We can find the easier paths where the slope is gentle. We can turn back the other way. We can take the easy road. If we are deciding the course of our life by our commitment, and knowing where we should end up, knowing how hard it will be to get there, would we ever take that first step out the door?

Part of the problem is that looking back we DO have that knowledge. We walked the path, endured the trials, and faced down what challenges we could. We picked ourselves back up when hard times knocked us down, dusted ourselves off, and took the next step. And throwing all that information at us as we prepare to take that very first step is of course intimidating. Why? Because knowing all that wasn’t necessary for the journey. Knowing it would actually get in the way.

Knowing where you are going to end up is a conceit of looking backwards, hardly ever truly of looking to the path ahead.

Keep that in mind: Knowing is not a solution in every circumstance.

As we are white knuckling our way into the future we sometimes think its all up to us, that every wrong decision threatens our progress, and that its up to us to choose wisely. We feel that knowing is our only salvation. The real truth is that if we actually looked back at how we got to most places in our lives, knowing would have little to do with so many things. We would see our own hand has been conspicuously absent from the tiller. We’ve been asleep at the wheel and got to places we never began by imagining. Or it simply didn’t turn out as expected. Others paved the way for us and we followed in their wake. We got pushed by rough seas and chivied against our will. Our own powers of control and insight are simply very often exaggerated…… The futures our decisions point to are not always what we imagine.

But we also, sometimes, seem incapable of taking our eyes off the future. We are committed to the path, because every fiber of our being tells us this is what matters, this is what I need to be doing, this has a place in my life. The other stuff is just a waste of time. If we can’t do what we think we should be doing, then its all a waste of time. If I know with solid conviction that the art I want to make is this exactly, then how can I settle for less?

Another formulation might be, if I only have a limited amount of time I can spend making my art, then I simply have to be making these things and no others. If it were the last day before the earth exploded, what would I add to the world? Some ‘experiment’? Some frivolous fart at posterity? And global catastrophes aside, my own end is assured, perhaps sooner than latter. If there is so much at stake in my efforts to bring beauty to the world, how could I not make the very best I know I am capable of? Can I accept even a moment’s worth of something less?

This second formulation essentially has the same misinformation at the crux of the decision: That its all or its nothing, and that our knowing plays a crucial role. We can get paralyzed thinking we only can afford to make these pots and no others, that the value of the future is somehow irrevocably set. And we can become immobilized by thinking that our first step on the path locks us into an inescapable future, that we are committed, all or nothing. We are paralyzed by knowing what to fear and also knowing what we love, paradoxically. They both become the potential excuses for not doing anything.

Knowing what we take to be the important facts we contort ourselves into immobility. We induce our own mental cramps by overthinking rather than simply doing. And as in Zeno’s paradox itself, the evidence that is so willfully ignored is that the doing itself is what matters, not just what we think about it.

Consider how fatuous the idea of ‘knowing’ becomes in this meme below.

knowing and trusting


Let that sink in for a moment. Knowing closes as many doors as it occasionally opens. And the twist? Whatever we think we knew, the person/circumstances can change.

So here is the third formulation: We count our expectation of the creative life as the pretext for being there when, in fact, being there actually creates the condition that really matters. We sometimes feel we require wanting to be in the studio before we can be in the studio. And so we wait for that feeling. We wait until we want it. If we are in a dark place or are confused, it may turn out that we have lost sight of wanting it. Waiting for it, it may never come again……

But the problem isn’t our need for that feeling, its that sometimes we forget. Sometimes we forget why we like being in the studio, and how that even happens. Wanting to be in the studio is a side effect of being in the studio, not the other way around. Its like we are saying we can’t eat unless we have a fork. Its putting the cart before the horse. The fork is not the important thing, it merely helps us do the job.

What we have forgotten is that we actually love being there. We may have ended up feeling strongly about some specific object we feel destined to make, but we were in love with the studio long before that piece of information came our way. And the silly thing is that if we look back at our past infatuations, we can see our history littered with former loves and cast off lovers. We often have simply confused our affection for the product with the real and deep relationship we have with the process. What we make will come and go, but our life in the studio is as close as we get to a constant value. THAT should be the center of our understanding. The cart and the horse all lined up correctly.

The confusion of retroactively mythologizing the mountain and knowing what it will take to climb puts into our crosshairs the blind spot of not being familiar with the process. Seeing the dangers but not the actual love that will grow in us as we climb, of course it will seem intimidating. The climbing itself IS our reward. There is no end, no highest peak of the mountain, except where you are when you decide to look back. The point is not the summit but the climb itself.

And in the same way we often forget that our pots or other art objects themselves are merely blips on the continuum. They are mere resting points in the progression of what we will be interested in and the eventual proliferation of forms that will come from our hands.

But its easy to get duped by the impressive things we make. We see this crystalline moment of our desire and extend its hold over us as far into the future as we can imagine. But the truth is that making itself changes us. Even when we are making what we think we should be making our sense of rightness is evolving. As I have said repeatedly on this blog, what we are working on is not really the pot or art before us, the clay between our fingers, but our own selves.

When we look back or we look forward we take our eye off the ball. Sure, its good to remember, its good to anticipate, but we have to live in the present, and it is our own selves that have to make it through whatever obstacle course is presented to us. We can’t afford to get hung up in our doubts, but neither should we be overcommitted to the wrong things. Change is in our nature. If we don’t know exactly what pots we will like best in ten years, that should take some pressure off needing to make specifically these things and only these right now. In ten years time we may even come to hate that commitment as our biggest regret.

The point is, you don’t know, precisely, but what you do know is that your tastes will be different in subtle and large ways. One true fact of our lives is that we are different creatures as we pass from the cradle to our grave. My fact of the moment: I hate the pots I was making two years ago. If I had spent even more time making them I would be sick right now. That would have been the waste, making the stuff I really really liked not so long ago…… Isn’t that a strange but normal situation, desire and regret tangled together?

What does that tell us about the trip up the mountain? This: The person making the climb is not the same person who started out. And so, we can’t really go back. And we can’t jump ahead either. Because the person who has the right to evaluate our work five years (or five minutes) from now may not be very much like the person whose job it is to actually make these things. All we have is what we do right now. Do what you think is best, or as best as you can, but don’t get hung up in today’s best. It won’t be tomorrow’s best.

Making art is not a laboratory experiment with ideal conditions, pinpoint accuracy, or even an absolute objective target. And if you are in some way obstructed from your best today, you have absolutely no idea whether what you are capable of will seem a miracle in the future. So do it anyway.

Don’t save yourself for the best. The ‘best’ is not why you are here. It is the doing itself which justifies us. The best is at most a shifting ephemeral target. So the practice of making has to involve chasing something that might cross our path in unexpected ways and at unanticipated points. Knowing targets is just inadequate. Some knowing is useful, don’t get me wrong, but its use is in helping us ask the right questions rather than in providing the right answers. Its best use is in putting us on actual paths, not identifying where those paths will lead with any certainty.

Let me say that again: Knowing is useful in helping us ask the right questions more often than in getting the answers right. Knowing answers is conditional and provisional. Even brilliant answers to the wrong question are worse than tentative answers to the right questions. Think of our time in the studio as asking better question. Getting the right answer is a poor way to spend your time if the question itself was terrible…… We’ve seen plenty of artists asking poor questions, haven’t we? The limits of what they know are so clearly exposed.

Things to think about, surely.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!



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

The trouble with ‘art’

When we ask “What is art?” what we are often really asking is “What kind of thing is art?” Every adult speaker of English has learned to use the word ‘art’, so obviously we must know what it means. We don’t not know. We are not confused in ordinary circumstances. We can point to objects that are art and we can decide with good reason between something like music (film, painting, sculpture) that is art and music that is not. That is, we are comfortable making decisions about ‘art’ with the same confidence and lack of confusion as we are in deciding whether a Ford, a Chevy, a BMW, and a potato are cars.

This does not mean that we are in complete agreement with our fellows about things counting as art, but this is less a confusion about the ‘thing’ that art is and more a difference between what we learned to use the word for. When we learned language we learned what things count as art and what things don’t. Some learn differences that we do not. This is how we grow to make sense of the world.

Its not a closed book we are exposed to. We are shown parts of the world, how to categorize things, choose members, the criteria that count, limiting cases, where the grey areas are, and then proceed to engage with the world in meaningful ways. We advance our understanding into unfamiliar areas. We learn the world and our language hand in hand. Not everyone learns all the same criteria we learn. And when we find that others disagree with us we can imagine they are missing something essential. As if they don’t have the facts right.

But this is our confusion. We imagine that if they had all the right facts they would see the truth as we do, as if relevant parts were simply hidden from view. The question is whether asking “What is art?” picks out a thing that is as neatly circumscribed as ‘cars’, ‘books’, ‘knives’, ‘plants’, ‘beetles’, and other sorts of thing we have little trouble identifying. Is ‘art’ a thing that is narrowly circumscribed? We sometimes assume that it is. At least, asking the question seems to presuppose that it is. But maybe, in fact, its the wrong question.

Perhaps we should first ask ourselves whether ‘art’ names something that can be used in the ways we want to use the term. We are frustrated that when we talk about art in the context of research, policy, and funding it comes to us as a slippery customer. We imagine that if we only tightened up what is meant by ‘art’ we would be able to achieve the things we want. We imagine the problem is that we have not yet precisely figured out what kind of object art is, and that by identifying its proper definition we will have a greater understanding of what ‘art’ really means. We take it that the ordinary use of the term, which leads to our confusion, is flawed and that there is some better more ideal way of conceiving ‘art’ that would avoid the problems. We imagine that we suffer a lack of precision, and that this is our fundamental problem.

But what if the problem were not our ordinary hamfisted use of the word in normal circumstances but actually demanding that it behave itself in this specialized ‘precise’ way? As if ‘art’ named a perfectly recognizable entity such as ‘cars’ etc? What if we are asking for trouble specifically because we are using a word that does not actually *name* something as much as it points to a diverse collection of objects and practices, grouped according to our own conventions and the accidents of our cultural history? What if ‘art’ were not a natural object that could be picked out once and for all by some essential characteristic, but a plurality of diverse things we call ‘art’ which at most share a family resemblance and are united only by our own linguistic practice rather than an inherent quality they all equally share?

Figure 'A' shows an essence shared between all members of the community, figure 'B' shows an ideal case that every member is related to, and figure 'C' shows how not every member of a f\group has to be related in the same way to every other member. They can instead be related through an overlapping and intertwining of intermediate cases with nothing strictly held in common by all members. This is what is meant by 'family resemblance'.

Figure ‘A’ shows an essence shared between all members of the community, figure ‘B’ shows an ideal case that every member is related to, and figure ‘C’ shows how not every member of a group has to be related in the same way to every other member. They can instead be related through an overlapping and intertwining of intermediate cases with nothing strictly held in common by all members. This is what is meant by ‘family resemblance’.

What makes one thing art will not always be what makes another thing art, and that lack of consistency, that lack of continuity, stands at the crossroads of our difficulty. What if we are asking the wrong question, and that rather than looking for the object that art is we instead should be looking at what art means in real human lives? Diverse lives? What if we are simply asking the wrong kind of question?

As Wittgenstein says in The Blue Book,

“WHAT is the meaning of a word?
Let us attack this question by asking, first, what is an explanation of the meaning of a word; what does the explanation of a word look like?
The way this question helps us is analogous to the way the question “how do we measure a length” helps us to understand the problem “what is length?”
The question “What is length?”, “What is meaning?”, “What is the number one?” etc., produce in us a mental cramp. We feel that we can’t point to anything in reply to them and yet ought to point to something.(We are up against one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment: a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it.)”

The substantive, ‘art’, has bewitched us into thinking there is some ‘real’ thing corresponding to it, that the word *names* something specific, and that our problems are just that we have not figured out the exact thing which is being named. We think the problem is that we have only done a poor job of defining what ‘art’ is, and not that looking for a better definition is itself part of the problem.

We don’t understand ‘art’ not because we don’t know what the word means (We do. We use it comfortably all the time), but because we are confounded by the idea that ‘art’ must name something specific. We attempt to use ‘art’ as if it works that way, and making it conform to a strict use is precisely what gets us into trouble, unfortunately. Its not that we are confused about art especially. What we are confused about is how specific that word can be made to function.

When we are looking for something that does a specific job, we may simply have the wrong tool in mind. But wanting a job to be done is no guarantee that any particular tool will suffice. We can imagine far more things than we are disposed to handle in the real world. Asking a question does not always mean there will be an answer. How many Angels fit on the head of a pin, after all? Some questions are simply bad questions, and our problem is that we can’t often tell the difference.

If the term ‘art’ causes problems for research, for policy, and for funding, perhaps its not art’s fault but our own. Perhaps we are simply asking the wrong sorts of question. That seems worth considering. We are far too naive about the ‘things’ our words name, the ordinary and correct uses of the words we have, and its far too easy to blame the words for our own inadequacy.

Things to think about, at least.



Posted in Art, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 2 Comments

Uncomfortable questions for the arts

For some time now I have been paying attention to conversations in the arts concerned with how we justify the arts in our lives, how we make the case for the arts to others, and why the arts should matter to anyone in general. There is such a lack of clarity in these discussions that we don’t seem to have gotten very far in making sense of the questions themselves. There are plenty of good reasons for caring about the arts, but our confusion is so deeply anchored. What do we mean by art? Who are the artists and why? What things are included in the arts and what things are excluded?Can research into the arts even make sense if we have no clear idea what the arts refer to? Can we have a conversation about the arts and the words themselves have only indeterminate meaning?

For instance, are the arts something fictional, like a unicorn that we have cobbled together from real parts, horns and hooves, but taken as a whole only point to a fantastical creature of the imagination? Yes there is music and yes there is painting, but is there such a thing as art? The arts? Do we need art to make sense as something other than a phantasm, or a useful fiction, to be able to advocate for it? Does that fabrication invalidate our efforts? If we think hooves are dandy and horns are fabulous, does it mean we categorically need the idea of unicorns to make our case more secure? Can we be invested in unicorns without any special attachment to horns and hooves?

We just don’t have any clear sense of where we are going in our discussions about the arts, and our lack of clarity seems fundamental. What clarity we have consists in arbitrarily drawing a line around specific attributes and excluding others from our definition. As Barry Hessenius asks in a recent blog post,

When we use the term, do we mean, exclusively, or even principally, artists who work in the fine arts fields of music, visual art, dance, theater and more contemporary art forms such as film or media?  Do we include craftspeople?  Do we include amateurs?  Do we mean to imply that the term artist somehow embodies professionals, or those who make their living from their artistry?  Or do we include within the term anyone who creates any kind of art on any level, including both those who self-define as artists and those who, for whatever reasons, do not? Does the term refer to aspiration, success, occupation or otherwise?  Is excellence in execution a prerequisite to claim the title?

A case can be made in answering all these questions either “yes” or “no”, and that merely points to the ineradicable confusion and intrinsic ambiguity of the question. But if a question can be answered with justification either positively or negatively we have to also ask whether the question itself is a good one. Do we need a definitive answer for what makes art art, what gets included in the arts, and who the artists are?

Perhaps it is our ambition to ask these questions that is misplaced. Faulty answers to a question don’t just mean the answers were inadequate but occasionally also that the question itself has flaws. We can ask bad questions. Some questions are so misguided that there simply are no answers that could count or that counting itself were continually up for debate. Words can have the appearance of a question but not really ask us anything productive. What, then, are the flaws in asking for an unambiguous definition for art, the arts, and artists?

If a question only leads to confusion is there a point where we turn from the chase after a ‘better answer’ to different questions that have answers we can more plausibly get behind? Are we faced with a Copernican type situation where after centuries of mapping out the visible cosmos with the earth at the center, needing to correct for more and more inconsistent data by more and more elaborate justifications, we instead turn to a point of view that has the sun at our center and the earth revolving about it? Are we looking at art and the arts and artists all wrong? Are we trying to understand them as things at the center of an explanation rather than as satellites orbiting some other as yet undetermined foci?

An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

I want to let that sink in before I give you my thoughts. These are uncomfortable and even threatening questions for many. The more we are invested in chasing unicorns the harder it will be to give them up, despite the practical difficulties. We are not often daunted, as humans, by the impossibility of our dreams. The things we value are aspirational as well as purely practical, and the pivot upon which our beliefs and behavior turns does not always depend on knowing the difference. That too seems worth considering.

As Barry concludes in his essay,

There are a thousand questions about how to possibly define the term ‘artist’, why do it, why not, and what it might mean. Where to start? Where to stop?

I don’t know, but increasingly I think it at least has bearing, even if unintended and unrecognized, on what we do and how we do it, and we thus ought to examine the question.

Barry is brave enough to ask this, but I worry that some of our brightest minds are closed to accepting the challenge. I am hoping that our courage for the truth makes even these uncomfortable issues worth addressing. That is my unicorn.

I welcome your thoughts. My own ideas will be forthcoming, as time permits.

Peace all!


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