Tales of the butterfly and snake

The great potter/blogger Whitney Smith just ran a post in which she confesses feelings of shame about her older work, which is much different than her new explorations. She says;

“This puts me in a strange spot with my older work right now. The standard collection that I’ve been pumping out for the past 7 years or so is all slip cast now, and I have made the decision that a lot of that collection is going to be discontinued– the cupcake stands, the bird bowls and vases for starters, and probably other items as I get used to saying good-bye to this work. But it’s still with me, taking up a lot of space in my studio, and sometimes the things people say to me about this work makes me feel strangely defensive and even ashamed. Another artist friend of mine said, “I loved your cake stands, but enough with the cute already! I like this new work so much better!”

I’ve had many comments from other people that they like this new work better than my older work. Which is nice, it’s a compliment and I know that, and I totally agree with them, but it gives me this feeling that I’ve been walking around with my underwear hanging out, and everyone has known it, and now they can tell me since I finally tucked it back in. It’s just this weird shame.

Whitney's new and better than 'cute' work. Me like!

Whitney’s new and better than ‘cute’ work. Me like!

This was my response:

Hey Whitney,

I think that any creative person who is evolving will be tempted to feel less kindly about their previous work than the current work that they are now excited by. I look at some of my pots from a few years ago and I feel that shame you are talking about. I’m almost embarrassed that some of this stuff is out there in people’s homes. The trick is to not see this new attitude as a reflection of the work as much as its a reflection of our own developing tastes. The person who made those old pots no longer exists. Or that person is slowly being replaced by someone new. Its like we are butterflies metamorphosing. So don’t feel so bad. You are like a snake shedding its skin: The only way to grow is to leave something of ourselves behind.

The price of moving forward is sometimes that we need to give things up that we were not prepared to part with. But that’s okay. All life only exists on the ruin of that which has been surpassed. To stand still is to be removed from the cycle of creation and destruction. Its a different sort of death. The corpse still breaths, and mouths words, but all autonomous activity has been replaced by autopilot responses and a life support apparatus. An artist has to embrace the many small deaths, the constant shedding, to affirm life. Creativity MEANS a certain sort of annihilation. You break eggs to make an omelet.

Or so it seems to me……

Peace all!

Happy shedding!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Pottery | Leave a comment

50 shades of clay

Someone in Monday night’s class mentioned that in an alternate Universe we would have a class called ’50 Shades of Clay’. The whole rest of the evening was spent cracking up and delivering jokes between getting pots on and off the wheels. I even made the mistake of telling one student to “Push deeper. Push harder.” (referring to the rib marks she was attempting) and her mortification turned her face as red as any I have ever seen. Oops!

Ignoring the Hollywood reference I woke up this morning knowing that this was the title I needed for what I am posting today. Today I’d like to talk about the relation and difference between quantity and quality and how that manifests in our pottery, in all art. My head was pointed in this direction after reading yesterday’s post from Seth Godin’s blog, and I knew it was something worth sharing with you folks. Here’s what Seth had to say:

Shoes that don’t fit (and free salt)

A beautiful pair of shoes, but one size too small, on sale and everything…. Not worth buying, not for you, not at any price. Because shoes that don’t fit aren’t a bargain.

And at a restaurant, you may have noticed that there’s no extra charge for salt. You can have as much salt as you want on your food, for free. (Of course, it’s not really free, it’s part of the cost of the meal, so we paid for it, so we might as well get our money’s worth, might as well use a lot.) Of course, that’s silly, because regardless of how much we were billed for the salt, no matter how unlimited our access to it is, using more is merely going to ruin our meal. Too much salt isn’t a bargain.

Buffets (like life, organizations, projects, art…) aren’t actually, “all you can eat.” They’re, “all you care to eat.” Which is something else entirely. Just because you can have it doesn’t mean you want it. Just because we paid for it doesn’t mean we should use all of it.

I think these are interesting observations, and I know that I for one don’t often pay enough attention to the differences. It seems relatively important to try making sense of why and how the world breaks down in this way. And after Seth I’m going to call these two differences fit and seasoning.

It should be readily apparent what the idea of fit means for the pots we make, if only in the way that Seth mentions with shoes. A mug that is so small (or big) as to be unusable or small (or big) enough as to discourage its use is something we have to consider. The idea that one size fits all for pots like mugs is something I never understood. I know people with big hands and big appetites, and I know people with small hands and small appetites. So I make all my mugs different sizes so that hopefully one or more may fit that customer specifically. As if it were made for them.

But with functional pottery that is meant to be hand held its not just about size but comfort and utility too. Fit can mean the nuances of ergonomics and the shape and design of the pot. A mug of the right size can have a devastatingly poor handle that makes using it not worth the effort. Or a bowl of the right size can be too narrow at the top or too wide for the things we want to do with them. In my art school days I used to put small spikes on cups so the user would have to pay attention when using them. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea….

And then there’s also the pot that’s not really what it pretends to be.

teapot or doorstop? Chuck Hinds will tell you "Its Art".

teapot or doorstop? Chuck Hinds will tell you “Its Art”.

For instance, all the elements you’d expect for a teapot are in this objet d’art made by Chuck Hinds, but is it a teapot? The lid is stuck on, and there is no hole for the spout to pour through even if you could get the lid off. Is it still a teapot? Is there some minimum criteria that we need to have for it to still be a teapot?

Oh, the treachery of images and objects!

Oh, the treachery of images and objects!

Magritte tells us “This is not a pipe”. Is a ‘plate’ with a hole in it a plate?

Voulkos platter. Is it a plate or does it just 'look like one'?

Voulkos platter. Is it a plate or does it just ‘look like one’?

Even though Voulkos would have reeled in horror to see deviled eggs and cucumber sandwiches piled on his platter, you can see that its not out of the realm of possibility. So it seems there are gray areas. Four solid holes and five embedded pebbles plus a divot still potentially qualifies this as a ‘plate’. But what about fifty holes? What if the holes were that much larger, and whole sandwiches would get sucked through the gaps?

Or, just the opposite: Real pots not intended for use but as a ‘still life’. Here’s the inimitable Jack Troy to explain it:

Returning home from a recent trip, I faced anunexpected dilemma when several pieces from ceramic still lifes made by different artists were in the cupboard with my everyday cups and bowls. A vase from one still life was on a table, with flowers in it.  The person who had been house-sitting was staying for two more days, and while it it was reassuring to have had the house cared for in my absence, I wondered about whether to raise the issue of the disrupted still lifes, or to just let it go, and rearrange the pieces where they belonged after my guest left.

When I woke up remembering how isolated the remaining pieces in the still lifes appeared on their shelves, and the related isolation the vase embodied, even with its lovely flowers, I felt the artist’s vision had been violated. But what clinched it was seeing my friend eating yogurt and fruit from one of the bowls removed from a still life. It seemed disrespectful to see this bowl-like element in an uncommonly beautiful ceramic composition being put to such common use.” (read the whole essay here)

Enter the notion of seasoning. Following Seth’s example, seasoning counts along a continuum. Say you start out with no seasoning. What you end up with can be bland, so simple it holds little interest for us. As we start to add seasoning it gets more interesting until we hit the sweet spot and can say without equivocation “That’s just about perfect!”

But if you push the seasoning a bit further than that its not just diminishing returns but a downhill slope that ends in something potentially worse than bland. We can overdo the seasoning. A simple form that has no articulation can seem very dull, but with even a few marks or changes in profile it can take on much greater interest. Tony Clennell just riffed on that in a post on his blog last week, and it seems worth noting. There is a range from dull to exciting to too much that circumscribes this aspect of quality. So its important to know when you haven’t done enough and stop before you’ve done too much. Sometimes more of a good thing is not itself a good thing…..

How many handles does a bowl need?

Every bowl needs at least two handles. maybe four....

“Every bowl needs at least two handles. maybe four….” Dan Finnegan (deeds spoken as words)

I’d say that hits the sweet spot, but you can imagine what more would do. The question is where that point actually happens. And maybe its a bit personal taste and a bit practical necessity.

How many wads are too many? The sweet spot supports the pot during the firing but also allows enough clearance for the vapors and/or ash to travel beneath the foot. Too few and the pot slumps. Too many and no atmospherics make their way through.

How much surface decoration/imagery/patterning splits the difference between nuance and garish? How much difference is too subtle and how much is too obvious? How much do we need to stay interested and how much will we be overwhelmed by? (When you cook you try to aim for a sweet spot with just a few distinct spices and flavors, not every flavor all at once)

How many pots are too many for a display? Do you just cram as many as will fit, or do you get some space between them to see the edges? When is a lot of information too much information? One pot per pedestal, or maybe a small tableau, but one pot per table might not be enough. Where is the sweet spot?

How many mugs do you need in your kitchen? A new one for every day, a clutch of favorites, or more than can reasonably fit on the shelves? Build enough shelves, I say! The number of pots is not the problem but the insufficiency of the storage! If you have pots stacked on the floors and every available horizontal surface, maybe you just need a bigger house. Or an addition, like my teacher Ron Meyers built for his wife Hester, to clear out some of the overflow. You’ve gotta have priorities :)

I’m sure I could go on much further, but I’m hoping what I’ve given is still somewhere in the sweet spot. I usually aim for excess, but that doesn’t always do me any favors. Hopefully this will be just enough to stimulate some thought and perhaps bring new light to some issues every potter, every artist, has to deal with. Interesting stuff, without a doubt!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Props for Tony

My fellow pottery blogging buddy Tony Clennell just posted his admission of self doubt that the conferences he has been invited to speak at this year were really meant for him. He puts it like this:

In the next year I am a presenter at the Icheon Festival in Korea, The International Ceramics Festival in Aberystwyth, Wales and then in 2016 the North Carolina Potters Conference. Should I be scared?  Ya, I should be! Is it all talk and not walk? Will I stumble? Will I be the weakest link?

Plenty of people who know and love Tony chimed in and offered their belief in him as a testament to why he was chosen for these honors. I think most of us have moments of self doubt, but even if we fail, even if we are the weakest link, its not always about the impression we think we’ve made. With potters its usually also about the community that is there to catch us as we fall (and if you are reading this, that means YOU). Which is why so many folks did their best to counter Tony’s self doubts. Here’s what I told him:

Tony, I think a little self doubt is healthy. It reveals the humility and human decency that you bring to the world. You are a down to earth potter, and down to earth doesn’t always square with the lime light. I’d be more worried if you felt completely at home there. But what you should not doubt is that you have something worth sharing. Even the players get to learn something from each other. But also, what we get to share in events like these is our sense of community, that we belong. Its not just a divided world of presenter and those presented to but a fellowship of learners and practitioners. And each of us is part of that no matter what level our abilities or experiences. What you bring to the table is your own unique insight into the life of a potter, some technical stuff that will surprise a few folks, your own sense of beauty and aesthetic value, some hard earned practical wisdom, but most importantly you bring yourself. And from what I know, Tony Clennell is a pretty awesome guy.

If you don’t know Tony, you should check out his blog, his book, his videos, some great articles about Tony, podcasts with Tony, workshops with Tony, and his pots wherever you can find them.

tc tc1 tc2 tc3 tc4 tc5 tc6 tc7 tc8 tc9


Posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Pottery | 2 Comments

What art and toilets have in common

(Another example of why the instrumental argument for arts advocacy misses the point)

“There may be no greater evidence that increasing arts in schools won’t create more arts patrons/lovers than the fact people in India won’t use toilets.” Joe Pattifrom his blog post ‘You Can Build A Toilet, But You Can’t Make Me Use It!’

"You can lead a man to a toilet but you can't make him pee"

“You can lead a man to a toilet but you can’t make him pee”

This is the response I gave in the comments on Joe’s blog:

The scenario is the old ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ dilemma. But lets not get stuck too much on the lack of causality from leading to doing: If you don’t get that horse to the water but leave it in the desert it WILL die of thirst. What more art in schools provides is opportunity, and the issue of transforming that opportunity into activity is another question.

The case you bring up shows many of the hurdles that we face in nurturing new arts enthusiasts. At its root, the move in that direction always seems balked by our own sense of identity, who we think we are, what we customarily do, and what we believe. Getting folks to buy into the value of art isn’t a simple problem.

How do you come to believe in the arts? Well, some folks grow up with it and never question its role in their lives. It can be as natural as speaking their mother tongue. But if you have no exposure to art you are an outsider, art is by definition something foreign. You are not just being led to water, you have no idea where you are being led. Art can be unintelligible, and that’s not an easy place to start building enthusiasm.

So how does art come to make sense to us? Well, imagine we were talking about a sport, or a game. If you look at it as an outside observer you can eventually pick up the rules. You might even become a fan. You can also read instruction books and look at videos. All these indirect measures are ways that folks can come to appreciate things like games, sport, and even art. Sometimes we are struck by something new and it resonates enough with us that we develop an appreciation.

But what if we start learning the activity by our own involvement? What if you start kicking a soccer ball yourself, start playing bridge or poker with your friends, or start painting or throwing pots on a wheel? Sure, folks will probably still have to explain some of the rules to you, but the learning is much more direct. And the outcome is not just that we are a fan of soccer, that we are a fan of bridge, a fan of painting, but that we are soccer players, bridge players, and painters ourselves. By doing it ourselves we have changed something fundamental about who we think we are. And maybe that’s the most important transition to make.

There is no guarantee that kids learning to paint will cause them to become professional painters later in life, that they will still have an affinity for paintings, or that they will support painting as a worthwhile activity, but its not a stretch to connect the dots that if you are a painter in some sense, painting has value for you. The trick is that folks not see themselves as just ‘doing art’ but that they see in themselves the creative potential for art. The thing that needs to happen is that we teach more people about the art within themselves. We need to show folks that art isn’t simply the stuff that other people do but that it has practical meaning in our own lives as well.

There is plenty of support for the arts outside of artists, but no one supports it like the artists themselves. If you had to ask who was more likely to enjoy and support the arts, a cop, a farmer, a lawyer or a painter, is there a reason you’d not intuitively pick the painter? If you were to survey folks who self identify as artists whether they enjoy and support the arts would you ever get less than 100% response? “I’m an artist but I don’t support art”? Wouldn’t that response point to a fundamental disconnect in personal identity?

Toilets in rural India are a tough sell because folks there don’t see themselves as people who use toilets. When you put it like that it sounds simple. And its also clear that what they are being asked to do is not as seemingly easy as just getting them to employ a new technology in an everyday activity. Its not as simple as asking a person who writes with a pencil to start using a pen. It might relate more to asking a person who writes with a pencil to start using a keyboard. The technology is not itself identity neutral. We need to understand the same nuance about art too: To be agnostic about art is to not be an artist ourselves…….


The typical kitchen cupboard of a potter:

Look at all those lovely cups, mugs, and bowls! Its true that I made a few of them, but my kitchen and my life are filled with my support for the work of other potters. Their brilliance lights the way for my own creative efforts.

Look at all those lovely cups, mugs, and bowls! Its true that I made a few of them, but my kitchen and my life are filled with my support for the work of other potters. Their brilliance lights the way for my own creative efforts.

“A rule stands there like a signpost. – Does the signpost leave no doubt about the way I have to go? Does it show which direction I am to take when I have passed it, whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country? But where does it say which way I am to follow it; Whether in the direction of its finger or (for example) in the opposite one? – And if there were not a single signpost, but a sequence of signposts or chalk marks on the ground – is there only one way of interpreting them? – So I can say that the signpost does after all leave room for doubt. Or rather, it sometimes leaves room for doubt, and sometimes not. And now this is no longer a philosophical proposition but an empirical one.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (85)

In other words, culture isn’t self explanatory but makes sense in the context of people for whom it matters. Art, rural toilets, what have you: Everything represents value only to the extent that it factors as a part of a way of life.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Valentine’s Day Special: The artistic importance of self-love

Here goes another foray examining the place that love has in the practice and manifestation of art! Maybe a bit off the beaten path, but its rarely as simple as just doing what we love…. So:

There is some debate over the old saw that you need to first love yourself before you can love another. But leaving aside the chicken and egg controversy, the idea of vanity, or self-love, itself has importance for those of us pursuing a creative life. Here’s what David Foster Wallace had to say:

“In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which — since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow — is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing — your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.”

It seems an important but unusual acknowledgement to describe the necessity for a certain amount of vanity in an artist’s practice. If we love what we are doing (the ‘other’), at some point we need to tell ourselves that its not a mistake or an accident. Its our job to ‘get it right’. We need to tell ourselves that we ourselves, we the maker, are better than mediocre. Sometimes, whether we are or not.

The idea of “showing off”, as DFW puts it, is that what we do is a reflection of ourselves. We can’t put out stuff we know is crap, if we care, because our vanity usually means more than that. The burden of bringing forth new things into the world is that we do care. We are responsible. And as any parent with their offspring, artists care that what they’ve created is worthy of love. To not care is like a parent not caring about their biological children. Is that the kind of artists we are?

Artists typically want to be good parents. We want our created offspring to flourish, to find joy in the world, to be loved for who and what they are, and we hope that they in turn give joy to the new people in their lives. Its the only way to be an artist who’s not a manipulating miscreant, or someone just gaming the system…. Loving our art and loving ourselves as worthy creators just seems to be naturally intertwined.

Not that we are always duping ourselves, but perhaps a certain amount of unreasonable blindness and incurable fidelity is necessary. To have these hopes for our art we sometimes need to believe that the works are better than they are. That we are better artists than we are. That we are capable of making great difference in the world through our art. And unless we are so far out on the alien cutting edge, chances are there will be some confirmation that what we are adding to the world has a place where it will be cherished and respected. Even if its pots only our parents could love, a fumbled bit of poetry that only that special someone sees as a true gift, or a story told by someone you love and meant just for you….

Creative gestures have an honored place in our world. And so its not surprising that doing creative things makes us feel good about ourselves. The anxiety of getting it wrong is balanced by the chauvinism of getting it right. But sometimes we can go overboard on the bliss and self-satisfaction we feel. Taken too far an artist will imagine they are the gods’ greatest gift, that what they are doing is the best thing since the invention of sliced bread. They puff up with self importance, extolling their ‘leadership’ in the field and how iconic their work is. And maybe its true. But can we carry this self love too far? Is our vanity kept in check by a necessary humility? When does a viable self-love become dangerous narcissism?

Around the same time I first posted the DFW quotation I found this from Anne Lamott, and I felt that somehow they were connected:

“[T]he opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

I take this to include all manifestations of that human temperament. And the line I would draw from these two ideas is that the conviction we have as artistic generators, parents, and practitioners needs to be weighed with the more realistic view that we can always do things better (noticing the mess), that no matter how much we love ourselves and what we are doing, the world always pops up with differing opinions (the emptiness and discomfort), and that our hubris always matters more to ourselves than it does to others. Eventually, we hope, some light returns….

But never the less, sometimes that creator’s fondness is enough. Sometimes its all that matters. As long as its a love for what we are doing, a love for what we’ve made, and not an overblown love for our self-perception and conceit, or infatuation with the imagined status we feel we’ve merited. That way lies an abyss of self-deception…..

We can love ourselves and love our art, but also with humility. A parent trying their best. Not taking the public’s adoration for granted or as expected, but sometimes grateful when it is given, that it is earned rather than our due. We need to have faith in the sense that there is room for the unknown, that there is room for interpretation, and that others may have equally valid yet opposite points of view. If we can have faith in that sense we can learn to love ourselves and what we do without needing to be on the top of the hill. We need to be able to believe that what we do is one right way, and that there are many others. Its not a selfish or self-absorbed love, but a love with an open heart. Can we be artists in that way? Can we love ourselves and others equally?

I’ll leave it to you all to think about…

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Read these other installments on a valentine’s day theme:

The eight faces of clay love – A valentine day’s special

Valentine’s Day special: The Curse of Pablo Picasso

Belated Valentine’s Day Special: Art as a committed relationship, and matchmaking with galleries

Posted in Art, Creativity | Leave a comment

Follow up to potters: How important is the instrumental argument?

Last post I argued that the arts making their case by instrumental means was actually counterproductive. If the value of art is that it does creativity and innovation well, not only does that displace the importance of art but it invites competing means to achieve those ends. If you read the original post my essay was a response to you may have been struck with the thought that arts advocates seem to put the cart before the horse: They want to argue that art is important because it leads to creativity rather than that creativity is important because it leads to the possibility of art in our lives…. Art is how we inscribe our will on the world. Its how we bring meaning to a meaningless Universe. Its what makes us human and expresses our humanity. Or, one of many important things that does so…..

Asking us to defend art as an instrument for some other ‘good’ simply seems like asking the wrong question. But potters probably know all about this sort of scenario. We are accused of making ‘merely functional’ work when you can get something from Walmart that is cheaper and functions just as well. If pottery is just about the utility of serving food, transporting liquids, displaying contents, and storing things, then not only do other materials and technologies do it as well, but oftentimes they do it better. If the point of pottery is its function as a traditional vessel, then clearly we are selling ourselves short. Cheap mass produced ceramics trump studio pottery on economic grounds, and plastic trumps ceramics on durability. If its just about function, why would we ever choose relatively expensive and breakable hand made pots?

So, potters have to argue their worth on other grounds. Handmade is itself a virtue. Supporting your local artisans is itself a virtue. Sophisticated and nuanced beauty is itself a virtue. Nurturing our own creative expression is itself a virtue. Perhaps even the tradition of pot making is itself a virtue….. These things don’t need to be defended: They are the things that justify our other actions and interests in the world. Place the horse in front of the cart….

When we are asked “Why handmade pottery?” we can’t simply answer that everyone needs a bowl to eat from and a cup to drink out of. Its not what makes us unique and its not why what we are doing is valuable. As potters we are attempting something more important than that. Isn’t it obvious?


Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery | 2 Comments

Respect for the intrinsic value of the arts

Here’s a comment (slightly modified) I just submitted on Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog. The original post is part of their ‘Cultural Districts and Communities’ blog salon that ran last week. The case being made in this particular post is that art is an essential part of creativity, and that dropping art from things like education reflects poorly on the content and expressive powers of creativity. While that may be true, it also shifts the goal posts in such a way that we are no longer arguing for art but for art’s necessary place in creativity, communityand such. And that’s a bad thing.

Here’s what I mean:

One issue I see is that most of these descriptions of the arts focus on the instrumental value of art and arts practice, that art is important because of its agency for these other things. The terms used are things like ‘through line’, ‘ingredient’, ‘essential part’, a ‘role in cultivating creativity’, a ‘component in cultivating creativity’, ‘power in cultivating creativity’, etc. The difficulty is that by treating art as a means to an end you allow that the end takes priority over the means and that different means are equally and sometimes better able to achieve them. No wonder science supporters use the same tactics at the expense of art! Science does all of these creative things, and occasionally it does them even better. The obvious standard bearer for meaningful innovation is technology and science, not art.

If art is only worth doing/promoting for the instrumental value of encouraging creativity and innovation (etc.), then clearly it is only one possible option and has to continually prove itself against competing players and alternate resources. By phrasing our arguments in this way we set up a direct competition with things like the sciences. And yet these are the grounds we seem best prepared to defend the arts on. But, if you argue on these extrinsic grounds the best you can hope for is that naysayers will come to believe the arts are an important means to important ends. You will never get them to believe that the arts are important in themselves….. Those were not the cards on the table. That was not the wager offered.

My fear is that we have traded out the intrinsic value of the arts for only its extrinsic rewards, and that leaves us in the position where art is only one tool among many to solve a particular problem. We have staked our advocacy on one throw of the dice for how well the arts accomplish some other noble goal (creativity/innovation), not that the arts themselves are worthy. Its as if art is merely subservient to this other end, and if its just a tool, one tool is often as good as another. If solving the problem is what’s important then the means of solving it are not just less important but important only so far as they work. And people are justified in having their own ‘tool’ preferences. You like art? I like science? Who wins? By defending art in this way we are playing a weak hand in a game where the odds are stacked against us. We are fighting on foreign soil. We are betting against the house…..

In today’s world science does not need to prove itself. Its obvious in daily life how important technology is. That case has been made, and no one really needs to argue for it. Science is not just a tool but a good in itself. Ask anyone in a modern culture whether it would make sense to live in a world without science and its hard to imagine a response that didn’t recoil at the thought. But ask an ordinary person if they could live in a world without art and the responses might become less convincing. If art is supposed to be ‘for’ something we have yet to make that case. And in the meantime we have taken our eye off the ball, as it were. The reason for art itself has become confused with the things art is supposedly good for…..

And the reason for our confusion and all the losing hands played is that we have not done as good a job of arguing the intrinsic value of the arts, that this is how we define ourselves and that this is how we express ourselves. Art isn’t just something we do to be more creative and more innovative, its who we are as human beings. Forget the lofty stuff in museums and concert halls, art is what we do when we tell a child a story to put them to bed. Its what we do when we cook a meal from scratch. Its humming a tune. Its what we do anytime we exercise our aesthetic judgment, to see beauty in the world.

Humans have been doing these things from before the first cave paintings, as long as we have invested meaning in the world. Art isn’t simply a particular tradition, its what it means to live a human life. And if you can’t make that case, the arts will never be respected and facilitated the way that something like science is….

Or so it seems to me…….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition | 5 Comments