Better pottery through accuracy and precision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider that carefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sort of like this:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Peace all!

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

Six Friends show at AKAR

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

Kyle Carpenter

Scott Cooper

Scott Cooper again

Michael Kline

Ron Philbeck

Brandon Phillips

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

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

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

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Posted in Ceramics, Pottery | 4 Comments

Branding

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


“A good simile refreshes the mind.” Wittgenstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace all!

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

The trajectory of style

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

CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stage is set.

Enter Linda, stage left.

Act one: What gets you up in the morning?

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

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

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

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

End of act one, curtain closes

Curtain rises, altered setting

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

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

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

Linda sits at the wheel and gazes out at the audience

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

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

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

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

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

End of act two, curtain closes

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

Belonging

Last year must have been a fertile time for my brain. All sorts of interesting things keep popping up in my facebook ‘memories’, and I am tempted to simply share them all again and with you all here. Turns out this was posted on the blog last year and it resonated with folks. Go back to that original post and check out the comments. Here is what I had to say:

I once used to think I was from here. My parents told me stories of my upbringing and I had memories of specific joyful things. It turns out that the first day I went to high school I discovered I did not belong where I was. I had somehow arrived at a new and very different place where all the familiar ways of doing things no longer made sense. But I know I hadn’t gone anywhere special. Not then.

Perhaps the transition had been earlier. I remembered my first day of grade school. I had a brand new coat. Some kid took it and gave me his. I knew then that I was not from here. And I can remember even further back. My mom and I were walking on a busy street in downtown Philadelphia and I was holding her hand. Only, when I looked up it was the hand of a stranger. After a few moments of shocked outrage my real mom found me and the sunny summer day went on again.

So maybe its not that we physically have to leave our home planet to be aliens here. I get confused all the time, the world stops making sense, and I look into others’ eyes and have no sense of what they mean. Perhaps being alien comes with our birth. Maybe only some of us, but maybe all of us. Perhaps its like blue jays placing their eggs in other birds nests: When we are born we are born to the wrong parents, sisters and brothers, and we never fit in just right. We find ourselves in the wrong places all the time. The jobs we get as adults we don’t always belong at. Life sometimes fits like a pair of jeans that are three sizes too small.

But the alien in us is not the only traveler. Sometimes we DO belong. Sometimes a friend is there for us, can say exactly the right words to turn us from alien back to belonging. Sometimes we are part of things bigger than ourselves. And while it may be a struggle at times and even make us angry, there are things we believe in that give purpose to our life and are indelibly who we are. Every good parent knows a purpose that is defining. Even the alien in us can carve out a space where it belongs, where it can be who it needs to be. Every artist probably knows exactly what I’m talking about.

What a strange life it is to be human! How lucky I feel that I have friends who remind me that I am not out of place at all times. There are homes for me in many people’s lives. I belong to others as they belong to me. There is a studio that welcomes me in the good times and bad. And pushing clay around on a wheel makes me feel both alive and somehow strangely whole. And isn’t that just wonderful 🙂

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This is something I posted on facebook the other day and wanted to share it here. It may be the first non-specifically-art related post I have put here. I hope it speaks to artists. I think it does.

Cheers!

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Posted in Art, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

Repost: The Rules of Communication

A post I wrote one year ago today that seems a significant part of the conversation on this blog the past few entries:

The rules of communication

Lately I have been engaged in a number of conversations about meaning in the arts and art as a form of communication. The inimitable Chuck Wendig had a decent post on why breaking grammatical rules was okay. I agreed with everything he said except the following:

“I’m fond of saying that we need to learn the rules of writing in order to break them, and we need to break the rules of writing in order to learn why we need them in the first place.”

My response was:

Don’t give rules too much credit. At least, don’t credit them with some sort of objective value. We don’t *need* to learn THE rules. We need to learn some rules, a variety perhaps, and use them according to situations and our intentions. The need is merely that some sort of structure is the conveyance of meaning, but the structure itself is negotiable.

We are given a deck of 52 cards: What are the rules? We have to decide what game we are playing first for any rules to even make sense. The rules have no value outside the game being played. A queen is more valuable than an 8? A spade more valuable than a diamond? You have to follow the 6 of clubs with either a club or another 6? Neither of those? None of this matters unless you are playing a specific game by specific rules, and the rules only stand for that one game.

Is this a good hand or a bad hand? How can you tell? Dueces wild? Jacks wild? Go fish? Hearts? Spades? Bridge?........

Is this a good hand or a bad hand? How can you tell? Dueces wild? Jacks wild? Go fish? Hearts? Spades? Bridge?…….. The number of games this could be a hand to are almost limitless. The cards don’t tell you what game you are playing, the game does.

Our use of language is exactly like that. And art is a language so this is specifically about art too. There isn’t one set of rules that governs all applications. Objective values in art and most other forms of communication are a hobgoblin of peculiar minds. What we mean we mean within the confines of how and why we are expressing ourselves. And there are so many rules that its almost a miracle we can figure each other out. Think of the possible types and expressions of art and you get a sense. How is it possible we convey meaning with art? One set of rules?

It may not be self evident what game we are playing, but we are masters of our native tongue, and there is often enough evidence that a person ‘speaking’ sensibly can provide the clues that will make sense for us too. We start out accepting different things as meaningful, but we can be bridge that gap. We have different values, but we can find sympathies and even crossovers. We can learn to read a new language and to speak it ourselves.

Narrowing the acceptable rules to just a handful is a misunderstanding of rules and a discredit to our native manipulation of rules. It stands in defiance of the fluidity of communication itself. Language is like a tool, and we use it for a variety of purposes. Each purpose asks us to use language in a more or less specific way. But each purpose asks different things, and we can even invent new purposes as well as innovate tools. So language can be thought of as doing many jobs, and each of these jobs performs a task in an occasionally different manner from other tasks. The point being that its not ‘the same‘ task in all cases.

Language is a tool kit for a variety of purposes. Imagine it like this. You can use a bowl to drink soup and eat chili, among other things. A plate is not as good for soup, but a cup may be less useful for chili. Are we drinking soup or eating chili? What vessel are we going to use? We almost always have options. Language is that vessel. Art is that vessel. So:

Rules? Don’t be a slave to rules. Ask first what we are trying to do, and then you may find there is more than one way of getting what you want. There can be a variety of tool uses that achieve our purpose. The purpose we have is the important thing, not the rules for using specific tools. A hammer is not governed by the rules for using a saw. Don’t put the cart before the horse…….

An hour or so after I posted that comment I saw a response to a different conversation in another thread. This was a facebook post about whether the theater needed to be meaningful in a particular way or even to be understood on some level to be successful. I had said:

Not every story is an exercise in meaning, and not every meaning is absolute. Sometimes meaning is important and other times its not. Sometimes one meaning is prominent and other times there are many things meant, many intentions, and none necessarily standing for the whole more than the others. And sometimes the meaning is open ended, and left purposely vague. Sometimes it is designed in such a way that it can only be completed by the audience. Sometimes it is an ending that only we ourselves can write.

A story can phase from the overt to the hidden, it can blend our own understanding with the intention of the authors. It can even be without intention. A story is not one thing but many. A story is both something finite and final and alive and evolving. If we get any part of that we will have given it a home in our minds, hearts, and souls…..

The person responding said:

“Oh for crying out loud. Theater is about communication. If you don’t want to communicate, keep the manuscript in your desk drawer instead of putting it on a stage.” (Apparently this guy teaches theater at a University)

My response was:

I agree that the theater is at least significantly about communication but it seems there is not one single sense in which it communicates. Is making a statement the same as engaging in a dialog? Is asking a question the same as pointing to possibilities? Is having an answer the same as laying out a scenario? Is giving one’s personal perspective the same as making universal claims? Is telling a joke the same as revealing bitter truths? Is giving us something to ponder the same as asking for advice? Is expressing oneself the same as communicating?

I’m just not sure you can leave it at theater being ‘about communication’ without accepting that communication takes many forms and that meaning is portrayed and invested differently depending on how and why things are communicative. If it were simple we wouldn’t have both comedies and tragedies. We wouldn’t have entertainment pieces and serious explorations of the human condition.

And if we can have this breadth of meaning it seems reasonable that communication can fail. It also seems that communication doesn’t need to be the point. Some things are worth saying even if they are likely to be misunderstood. We can express ourselves for a variety of purposes, not all of which are designed to ‘communicate’. You can say something to point things out and you can say things to deflect and draw away. Is subterfuge communication per se? You can cheer your successes to hide your shortcomings. You can speak your mind to cover your ignorance……. And you can make mistakes and be mistaken.

So communication, yes, but that still hasn’t said anything interesting.

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Stuff to think about, at least 🙂

Cheers!

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Posted in Art, Creative industry, metacognition | Leave a comment