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.


Stuff to think about, at least :)



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

Your art is a language

“Pattern recognition is a priceless skill that comes with practice, with the experience of noticing. Noticing what works, what you’ve seen before, what might not work.

Because pattern recognition is so valuable, some people have erroneously concluded that the way to succeed is to slavishly follow what’s come before. Pattern matching is for amateurs. It rarely leads to the creation of much that can stand the test of time.

The art is to see patterns, but to use them to do something new, something that rhymes.” Seth Godin

This quote was too perfect not to use as a further example of how creativity functions like a language. Imagine you were stuck on a pattern, and that was the only way you could express yourself:

See Spot run! Run Spot run!


Kids are amateur language users, so they have to repeat themselves over and over again. They repeat the pattern. Is the pattern an end in itself? Does the pattern itself have value? I have never until now used the phrase “See spot run” as an adult, so its a thing I learned and then left behind as being no longer necessary. I repeated it enough times that I got the gist, and then moved on to more complicated things, and from there to constructing my own sentences. I went from repeating the patterns to, as Seth puts it, “using them to do something new.”

Our art is in the same position. Are we merely repeating ourselves like kindergartners learning phrases or are we connecting unfamiliar dots like poets and expanding the universe of imagination?

I’m not saying we can’t do both, I’m just interested in why we would choose to do either of them and what that says about our ambitions for the language we are using. I’ve got plenty of phrases that are important enough to repeat over and over again. If what I’m saying is important enough I may have to repeat myself to be understood.

But there are also times when what I’m trying to say could be stated differently. I can make the same point with different words. I can make the meaning I am after look different and thereby perhaps reach others more successfully. There are advantages to holding fast and to giving things up. I’m just asking whether we are enough conscious of these situations to make informed decisions.

Stuff to think about, at least :)

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Making our pots understood

My good buddy Tony Clennell just had a good moan about customers looking blankly at his pots and not knowing what they were for. Every potter faces that. Every artist faces the blank stares of incomprehension and befuddlement.

Tony suggests, rightly, that we have mostly lost our creativity from the third grade on. Being creative gives a person a leg up in figuring out what things can be done with, say, a tray, or even a simple cup. It is embarrassing sometimes how a customer can look at a cup and have no idea what you can do with it. Are they crazy? Are they somehow irretrievably simple minded? Well, to most potters making the damned things its as obvious as the clay smeared on our trousers.

Let me give you Tony’s take and then I will reply with mine:

I think most of the population is not very creative. They lost all their creativity somewhere around Grade 3. That’s why you get questions like what can I use this for and can I put cookies in this jar? Or if this is a coffee cup can I use if for water too?
If I were smart I probably should include a card telling people what they could use the tray for. Not sure I can find a piece of paper long enough. I think they work perfectly for bacon with a little side of hot sauce. I bet y’all were thinking sushi. They never cook sushi well enough for me.
I figure ya gotta make it simple for the simple. I put the little bowl on the tray with a piece of double sided tape so it doesn’t slide around and tie with a piece of raffia. It’s good to go as a hostess gift,
This is my first attempt at a title.

tony making it easy

My response is:

I don’t think its always the case that we are talking to the simple. Its not always about them or some deficiency they have. What its really like is we are speaking a language they do not understand. We have to teach them that language. Our pots are an expression in a language, and unless we are talking to folks who can either read it or speak it themselves we won’t be communicating. Its not necessarily about how simple they are but how unfamiliar they are with the meaning of our utterances.

So how do you bridge that gap? Well, educating them to use the language or by giving them practical demonstrations of the meaning, as you are doing. If you don’t understand the language you have to be shown how it is used.

If you were going to teach the word “hammer” to someone who didn’t speak English or someone who was unfamiliar with hammers, say a child, what would you do to demonstrate its meaning? You would show them what hammers look like and you would demonstrate what all you can do with hammers, right? So lets just pretend we are talking to people who don’t yet speak the language of pottery (mostly they don’t). Lets give them credit for being intelligent people in their own right who simply do not speak our language. Lets have the humility to recognize that there are many languages that we ourselves do not speak.

With tax time coming up I know of at least one language that I do not speak, and I hope not speaking it isn’t a sign that I’m simple. There are some languages I should probably learn, but speaking them always leaves me sick to my stomach. I want to learn Elvish and what I get is the language of Mordor…..

No one will understand pots until they know what to do with them. Knowing what to do with them is the *beginning* of our understanding. So when you look at people who don’t yet know what to do with our pots you are looking at people who don’t yet understand the language in which we are framing our words. Its that simple.

They can look at a cup and not SEE IT as a cup. They will know exactly what to do with mass manufactured plastic cups, but what we have offered them is obviously not the same thing. We don’t want them to think handmade is the same as mass manufactured, and at least they often get that part right. What they typically don’t yet understand is that you can do all of the same things with handmade you can with store bought.

They look at a cup and they don’t see a cup. Maybe they see art, and maybe they’ve been told that you are not supposed to handle the art, much less use it in daily life. Maybe they’ve been told that handmade work is one of a kind, and that once it gets broken it is forever lost. So maybe they think our pots are irreplaceable and should not be used even if they could be used. I know I feel that way about some of the Michael Simon pots in my home (after chipping all but two of his teapot spouts I have stopped brewing tea in them :( ).

So its not just a lack of imagination or being too simple to understand what to do with our pots. Its much more complicated than that. Potters are like missionaries in an untamed wilderness. The tribes of people we meet often have very little in common with us. They don’t speak our language and to an important extent they don’t share our values. We are engaged in efforts of conversion. We say, “Let me show you how to make this tray a part of your life. Isn’t that great? Doesn’t that make your life much more enjoyable?” We are trying to get our customers to see the world through our eyes, but first we have to help them understand our language.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

C-File Discussion: The arts dominated by the wealthy

Just read a post on C-File that asked for opinions on the recent study in the UK that the arts were dominated by the wealthy. Their post went as follows:

The Guardian reported, based on a survey by the arts organization Create and Goldsmith’s University, that the UK’s creative industries are dominated by middle class people. That has implications not only for artists of working-class backgrounds but also for artists of different genders and ethnicities.


The Guardian quotes Create’s director Hadrian Garrard, who said that the UK was in danger of returning to a pre-1950s era when art was a closed-off playground for the wealthy. Compared to the last few decades, which Garrard called a “golden era,” that idea is pretty alarming. Suddenly the survey’s title, Panic! makes a lot more sense. The findings excuse the alarmist title. They are, according to Create:

  • Those that earn over £50,000 p/a are most likely to believe that they got there through hard work, talent and ambition. Those earning under £5,000 p/a are most likely to believe that it’s not about what you know but who you know.
  • The majority of white people in the arts don’t acknowledge the barriers facing BAME (black, asian and ethnic minorities) people trying to find a foothold in the sector.
  • Women are more likely than men to have worked in the arts sector for free and once paid are generally paid less than their male counterparts.
  • 30% of BAME people think ethnicity is very important to getting ahead, whilst only 10% of white people believe ethnicity is very important to their chances of getting ahead.
  • 32% of women are likely to have done unpaid internships as opposed to 23% of men.
  • On average men working in the cultural industries earn 32% more then women working in the sector


My response was:

People have been making art long before it was a job to make art. The contemporary profession of art making is just the tip of an iceberg that is spread throughout the whole of society and the entirety of our history. We have praised the professionals for entirely justified reasons, but perhaps in doing so have taken our eyes off the creativity that is a natural part of being human. Of course most people don’t get paid for being creative or even do it as a means of exposure, so we tend to push the work of professionals into the limelight. Professionals are visible because there is an industry supporting their work. There are institutions for art that thrive in the limelight. But as with any light shined, there are shadows and areas simply not covered.

Of course it is easy to have strong biases for the masterful work of professionals, but when we say ‘art’ we are not simply saying ‘good art’. And its usually only ‘good art’ that gets exhibited and praised on a cultural level. As someone who teaches hobbyists, amateurs, and children I have to recognize that there is so much more to art than simply making a living from it. There is so much more to art than striving for excellence. There is so much more to art than its commercial value or cultural impact. For every big name artist being shown in galleries there are a thousand kids with drawings on their parent’s fridge. For every talented actor on the big screen there are millions of kids playing with dolls acting out scenes from their imagination. For every published author there are enough natural story tellers to spin every yarn many times over. For every prime time musician there are countless people singing in showers or crooning along with songs on the radio.

There is something known as the survivorship bias, where we take as representative the ones who ‘made it’. This gives a very skewed perspective on what things matter. The truth with the arts isn’t simply that the survivors in the limelight are just the ones who developed a successful career and that the rest of the landscape is littered with failure. No. There is more to making art than simply having a successful career. Most people making art will never even attempt to make a living from their creativity.

I’m not going to question that coming from a middle class background, being white, and being male all have something to do with how well a person is able to play the system of earning a living from their art. Disputing that is like questioning why more poor people don’t drive Cadillacs and live in mansions. Society has rigged things in favor of its biases for as long as we’ve had culture. The point I am making is that art has more to do with natural human creativity than simply earning a living. Equating the arts with professionalism is such a narrow construal as to be quite laughable. As if art were invented when the first person got paid for creating something! (Prostitution may be the ‘oldest profession’, but I’d like to think sex wasn’t invented that way. If professional quality/availability were all that mattered its a wonder any species ever got up and running….)

The danger as I see it is not necessarily that many people’s paths are obstructed in reaching career level involvement in the arts. Yes, we need to do as much as we can to make that more equitable. Rather, its that we so devalue our native creativity that we see as valuable only those things which can be bought and sold in an arts marketplace and are visible in the larger cultural landscape. Looking at it like that we have put all our chips on the bet that the arts are only extrinsically valuable. In arts advocacy this has hampered our message and done very little to sway outsiders to an actual appreciation for the arts. What we have lost in this gambit is the knowledge that making art is often its own justification. We have lost sight of the intrinsic value of art done for its own sake and replaced it with the value it has in social benefits and simple marketplace worth. Art is so much bigger than those things. Perhaps it is time we honored art in its full breadth and humble glory……

That’s my opinion, at least :)

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


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

Voice = choice + advice

The idea of voice in art… well, it sort of bothers me. When it gets mentioned it often gets mentioned as something to pursue as a goal rather than a side effect of other important things we are doing. And taking it this way only magnifies the idea that our creative focus should not be on what we are saying, or the different possible ways of saying it, but instead on this singular way in which it gets expressed. As though our voice were also somehow inescapable (despite routinely being told of the need to ‘search’ for it). As if having a singular voice were somehow inevitable and necessary for doing the creative stuff we do. It takes a tool of our expression and installs that as the message itself, almost. It confuses means and ends, puts the cart before the horse……

When art gets expressed well, voice is surely part of that. As Richard Notkin says, “The art must be strong enough to carry the message-the message alone will never carry the art.” My worry is simply that we too often praise the voice rather than the art, as if who said it were more important than what was said. If the art is more important, then it should not ultimately matter whose voice sang the song. Or if one voice sings it particularly well that its the same voice that is necessary for singing every other song….. That’s just something to consider.

Of course we admire certain voices. I’m not saying there is no value in how we express ourselves. On the contrary, having a recognizable voice is good for business. Rather, I’m suggesting that the voice should at least sometimes serve the message, not simply the other way round. The question is, is having a singular voice always good for the art? The sense I often get is that we should embrace as many voices as necessary to sing all our songs as best as we can. If the voice is a servant of what we are doing, then it should be no problem. One or another will fit the task. If it is instead the master, well, it becomes a question of whether we have a master who has our best interests at heart.

Doing it only one way is tyrannical and miserly. Its not natural. If we look at how voice plays out in our daily lives its easy to see that we use particular voices given the circumstances and our desires. It can be a pretty fluid tool for expressing ourselves. Its not as if we are stuck with only one voice to use. We can sing in the shower and whisper sweet nothings to our loved one. We can belt out some opera and hum nursery rhymes to our kids. We can yell at the dog and cry at sad movies. We can laugh and we can chuckle. Its not the same voice. It never was.

So why on earth are so many artists obsessed with promoting the vision that we have to get it right? That there is only one good way we can express ourselves authentically as artists? It seems like a reasonable question….. Should we just meekly do what we are told in the time honored tradition or should we actually try understanding for ourselves? Are we believers in superstition or are we independent and critical thinkers? Can we go deeper into thoughts that contradict the lore that has been passed down? Can we question what we’ve been told and not simply repeat the mantras?

I found these two quotes by sheer coincidence a day or so after I was thinking these thoughts, and decided to conclude my essay with what they had to say. The first is from an interview with the writer/actors of the film My Dinner With Andre. The second is from a conversation with Marvin Minsky, a leader in the related fields of artificial intelligence. Read the following and compare what they have to say with the typical mythology we get for the idea of ‘voice’ in the arts:

Both of you have said that the characters in My Dinner With Andre are not, in fact, you. But how much of you is in those characters?
Andre Gregory: I believe that there are many different sides to all of us. I’ve been thrown out of five different gyms for what you would call cutting up — making fun of working out, all kinds of different things. Somebody else has never seen that Andre. No one has ever seen the Andre who is at home with his wife. These are all different characters, or sides of one. When I was creating the role, I had a terrible time. It drove me nuts because who the hell is Andre Gregory? How do I play myself? Then, after months of rehearsal, I came up with four different voices. One was Andre Gregory the Peter Brook guru. One was Andre the off-the-wall rich kid — spoiled, narcissistic. The other was the Andre who is sometimes sincere. All of these voices were mine, but they only arise when I become those different characters. If a young student comes to me and wants me to pass on some kind of experience or wisdom to them, I might get into the Peter Brook guru voice. I literally created four different Andres, all of whom were aspects of my personality.” From this interview.

my dinner with andre

And here’s Marvin Minsky:

“It really is a simple idea — that our minds have collections of different ways to do each of the things they do. Yet this challenges our more common and more ancient ideas about what we are and how we work. In particular, we all share the notion that inside each person there lurks another person, which we call “the self” and which does our thinking and feeling for us: it makes our decisions and plans for us, and later approves, or has regrets. This is much the same idea that Daniel Dennett, who is arguably the best living philosopher of mind, calls the Cartesian Theater — the universal fancy that somewhere deep inside the mind is a certain special central place where all mental events finally come together to be experienced. In that view, all the rest of your brain — all the known mechanisms for perception, memory, language processing, motor control — are mere accessories, which your “self” finds convenient to use for its own inner purposes.

Of course, this is an absurd idea, because it doesn’t explain anything. Then why is it so popular? Answer: Precisely because it doesn’t explain anything! This is what makes it so useful for everyday life. It helps you stop wondering why you do what you do, and why you feel how you feel. It magically relieves you of both the desire and the responsibility for understanding how you make your decisions. You simply say, “I decided to,” and thereby transfer all responsibility to your imaginary inner self. Presumably, each person gets this idea in infancy, from the wonderful insight that you yourself are just another person, very much like the other people you see around you. On the positive side, that insight is profoundly useful in helping you to predict what you, yourself, are likely to do, based on your experience with those others.

The trouble with the single-self concept is that it’s an obstacle to developing deeper ideas when we really do need better explanations.”

The conclusion I would like to draw is that your particular voice is always a choice, or at least one of many possibilities. Singularity is an artificial constraint. Its not so much us, in any comprehensive sense, as its what we are being told to do. An external pressure. What we often get told to do as artists, finding our singular voice as a sort of Holy Grail Quest, is merely advice. It turns out this has some weight in the marketplace, but it is neither inescapable nor necessary for doing all the possible things we want to do.

And if it makes sense to have but one recognizable voice for the marketplace, don’t try to justify it as necessary for the art. The art could be anything. That is the freedom and power of art. Rather, it is simply a choice to be typecast, in the same sense that some actors only get to play the same roles again and again and again. We can train ourselves to comfort and familiarity, like a beast who only knows the four walls of its cage….. We can be indoctrinated and domesticated.

There may be some satisfaction in that, and we may do a really good job portraying this one character type (the ditzy goof, the inept clown, the bad guy, the noble hero, the tortured sensitive type, etc) but the truth is more that we have limited ourselves to one means of creative expression than that we have embraced anything approximating our own creative potential or fully authentic self. Its as if we had chosen to lobotomize the other voices we could have played. We have amputated the other possible characters from our repertoire.

It may be prudent from a marketplace point of view, but is it really a ‘good’ choice? Is it really an artistic choice? Are lobotomies and amputations and all other shackles really good artistic options? If you are going to play Vincent van Gogh you may have to cut off your ear. The problem is that you can’t always grow it back….. What are the options when you are now stuck with only one ear?

Some decisions we can back out of. Some choices we make we are burdened with for the rest of our lives. The key is knowing what the difference is. We have some control. We should never mistake a marketing decision with an artistic choice. If the marketing is more important than the art, so be it. But if the art takes precedence, why would it need permanent cages? Why would it offer only cul-de-sacs? Why would it demand only unswerving and eternal obedience? You make something and you move on. Its not a rut you can never escape. You don’t have to go over the same ground ever more. You are not some dog chained to a tree with only the run of a small yard. If the wheels are still spinning you can set them back on the ground and head off in new directions. Right?

Do as much as you want as long as you want. Do it all. Do everything. Sing in the shower and knit by the fireside. Make goofy sculpture and serious pots. Make serious sculpture and goofy pots. Do them both at once. Fire in a woodkiln to cone 14 for 7 days and pull pots out of raku kilns after a mere few hours. Paint. Draw. Carve. Paddle. Sprig. Roll slabs. Stick handles on. Voice be damned! Do the things you want to. Let the voice be an effect of what you are doing rather than its cause. Put the damned cart behind the horse.

Hope that made some sense :)

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 1 Comment

Ironies of the potting profession

“An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Not everyone is conflicted. Not every artist is. But artists sometimes face the task of reconciling otherwise reasonable parts of their life just from being who they are and also trying to do the ‘right’ thing. Making a living from something we love isn’t just difficult, sometimes it also conflicts with our non-creative ideals and intentions. Not always. Not everyone making pots is faced with ambivalence and contradiction. But some of us are….

I just read the latest blog entry from the folks over at Objective Clay, and at least one person there is having a tough time reconciling their own beliefs with the idea of needing to sell pots. Emily Schroeder Willis writes that her private life has gone from the typical potter’s proliferation of collected pots to what she describes as ‘minimalism’. Its not just that she no longer avidly collects pots but that her kitchen no longer welcomes a diversity of pots. She has chosen to draw a line in the sand, and anything more than two pots won’t make the cut. Its a principled stance that seems odd for a potter.

If she were not a potter there is nothing especially unusual about paring down material objects. Downsizing, austerity, and minimalism are all legitimate ways of life. Many are taking a stand against rampant consumerism and a material way of life that distracts from more spiritual values. Of course some potters would feel this tension. Its just that potters place hundreds if not thousands of pots in people’s lives and this seems anything but minimal.

How do we reconcile selling that many pots with a philosophy that endorses only those things in a person’s life that are strictly necessary? Minimalists have a point, don’t they? Who really needs more than one or two cups, one or two bowls, one or two plates, to get through life? And if the issue is quantity rather than quality, why even handmade pots rather than mass manufactured and inexpensive cups, bowls, and plates?

Part of the confusion is assuming that pots are simple material objects only, and that by surrounding ourselves with pots we are merely accumulating material objects. Minimalism isn’t a qualitative differentiation. But taking this simplistic point of view misses a few things, doesn’t it?

Pots may be functional, but in our culture they do so much more than serve or contain food. Surrounding ourselves with pots isn’t simply accumulating an unnecessary surplus of utilitarian vessels. Rather, we are collecting beauty. We are collecting inspiration. We are collecting ideas. We are collecting memories of friends. Pots are all these things and more, and trying to live minimally asks our pots to just be like ordinary physical objects when they really are nothing that ordinary. You may not need more than two bowls for the daily act of conveying food, but can you say the same thing of beauty? Is beauty a thing we should constrain with minimalism?

A few years ago a friend wrote on her artist’s statement that she wanted her pots to reflect environmental concerns like conservation. Once again, there is a certain irony: We professional potters are engaged in the proliferation of more and more material objects at the cost of non-renewable resources and a not so green footprint. My friend was a salt firing potter, so this inconsistency was even harder to conceal. Is it only our power to keep opposing viewpoints that makes being a potter AND an environmentalist possible? Are potters necessarily bad environmentalists?

Its a question for many of us. Can we be environmentally conscientious and still make and fire pots? It seems like a hard position to justify. Are we sometimes naturally schizophrenic?

Making anything balances the cost of acquiring raw materials, the energy expended in manufacture, and the space taken up by waste products and the items themselves. Pots are no different: We depend on sourcing our ingredients from distant mines, and our fuel from polluting industries. Pottery shards don’t just go away. Could the argument be made that digging our own clay and glaze materials and firing with locally harvested wood is a conservation practice? Would there be a zero sum ecological impact?

Even if we somehow justified everything on the resources end, the truth is that we are still engaged in manufacture, and pots are not natural objects. In making them we are doing the opposite of conservation. So how do we hold to both being environmentalists and potters at the same time? Should we feel bad about making pots? In India they even make disposable clay cups for streetside tea vendors.

"These disposable clay drinking cups deliver thousands of gallons of sticky sweet chai and fruit lassi shakes to the thirsty Indians who queue at street carts. They look like tiny flower pots, and they could be, but here’s how it works: Small shops in every city employ potters to turn, cure and low-fire these little unglazed cups from local clay. They’re then sold to street tea vendors – chai wallahs – who dish out single servings of hot tea for 2 Rupees each (about a nickel). More impressive are the vendors who make their own cups, spun in fired in a makeshift kiln on the small sidewalk space behind their cart. The chai wallah’s customers stand, socialize, gulp and then smash the cup into a nearby can or, more often, the street gutter."

“These disposable clay drinking cups deliver thousands of gallons of sticky sweet chai and fruit lassi shakes to the thirsty Indians who queue at street carts. They look like tiny flower pots, and they could be, but here’s how it works: Small shops in every city employ potters to turn, cure and low-fire these little unglazed cups from local clay. They’re then sold to street tea vendors – chai wallahs – who dish out single servings of hot tea for 2 Rupees each (about a nickel). More impressive are the vendors who make their own cups, spun in fired in a makeshift kiln on the small sidewalk space behind their cart. The chai wallah’s customers stand, socialize, gulp and then smash the cup into a nearby can or, more often, the street gutter.”

Its a question. How can making more human artifacts actually lessen the human cultural impact on the globe? Not physically, obviously. As in my first example above, we need to understand pots as something more than simple physical objects. Rather, pots are a potential vehicle for other human activity and intention. We can use our pots to talk about the environment. We can use our pots to reference issues that face the planet. We can use pots to remind people of the values of a kinder impact on the world. We can help folks see why the environment is worth conserving, even as we contribute to the surplus of man made objects. That’s the advantage of using language to communicate ideas. We can change the world indirectly. And pots can be that language.

The value of pots can’t simply be in their utility for food. More cups and bowls will never be an example of the principles of conservation, and yet we can make them expressions of the values of the environment. We can express conservation through the language of pottery. We talk about nature not with natural objects but by referencing them in human terms. We can counter the values of a mechanized and industrialized soul crushing human presence with elegant naturalistic statements.

There was a time before industrialization when pot making was a respected industry. Contemporary pots can remind us of those values. Not all human impact is negative. Some is better in comparison. I could never make pots if I thought the benefits did not outweigh the costs. Its just that we sometimes need to choose the lesser of two evils. And if using a handmade cup or bowl helps people care more about the world in their hands, perhaps a caring soul that has been nurtured with handmade pots will also care more about the greater world we collectively hold in our hands. Perhaps? It seems an argument worth making…….


Any other inconsistencies and ironies that potters have to deal with? Just because we can hold these opposing viewpoints does not mean that we shouldn’t think them through as best we can.

Things to think about at least :)

Happy Potting!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 4 Comments

The world is not enough

Its been a while since I’ve heard anyone claim “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I hope we have moved on from that, from the idea that beauty is entirely subjective and that it has no independent reality from the person who sees it. To locate beauty just in the eyes of beholders makes it seem like a figment of their own imagination, that it would hold no weight in the ‘real’ world. No wonder some folks feel that beauty is unnecessary or has little value to us. No wonder a segment of the art world has derided beauty as a frivolously indulgent pursuit. What more flimsy a thing could we build our grand and important statements on than something merely in the eye of the beholder?

And its true that beauty does seem dependent on our ability to appreciate it, in some sense at least. I would argue that its more like hunger being something that is in the belly of the famished. Yes its personal, but its also real and has real consequences in the world outside. People starve. Hunger is no more a figment of our imaginations than beauty is, but why?

Well, first of all, beauty is a reaction to the world, to some circumstance that others can conceivably also relate to. The fact that not everyone sees beauty the same way or in the same places has made it seem as though it had to be entirely personal. The idea being that if I get something but you do not, beauty is therefore dependent on the viewer. But its not an issue of originating beauty as much as its an issue of the capacity for finding it. Bellies don’t invent hunger, they suffer it. In other words, its not a question of the subjective location as much as its a question of whether we have the keys required to access it. It takes more than eyes to suffer beauty, but what exactly?

Imagine beauty was hidden somewhere, perhaps behind a locked door. Now imagine that some people had the keys to unlock the door. Having those keys means we get to see what others do not. And yes they are our keys, and possible even our doors only, but the things they unlock are no more a part of us than any other thing we can relate to in the world.

Finding something beautiful is like feeling how heavy something is. Some folks will find that an object seems heavy and others that it seems light. HOW we understand the world is up to our capacity, the things we have been educated about, and the skills and strengths we have cultivated. If it takes exercise to lift 50 lbs easily, sometimes it also takes exercise to see beauty. The weight/beauty is out there. How we deal with it is down to our own capacities.

So, a few weeks ago a friend posted something on facebook that caught my eye. It seemed an opposite example of misunderstanding beauty. Here’s what was posted:

A student made a comment today, during reading group, about beauty. She said that beauty was not strictly necessary in our world. We could live without it. If our happiness depended on living in a world with beauty, then we could simply live life unhappily. She ended her argument with the phrase, “So what.”

What this person’s thoughts said to me was how we can lose sight of the value of beauty, but also that we can forget our own role in addressing it. Its not as if the world contained some finite and objective amount of beauty. Rather, beauty exists everywhere we find it and more. And finding it is a skill that can be nurtured. We will run out of beauty around the same time we will run out of hunger. In other words, we won’t. These things are a condition of our normal existence. But in what way?

A world without beauty is not some sterile place where beauty is impossible. Try to imagine it. What would have to be the case, physically, for it to be like that? Such a place could not exist for the simple fact that beauty is a basic way that human beings understand the world. And that can mean even the least likely sorts of things. Humans can and do find beauty in even the most agonizing conditions. Beauty is not a first world condition.

Instead, a world without beauty is a place where human beings have somehow forgotten to understand the world as containing beauty. Like an immunity. Its less a comment on the physical constituents of the world than our own capacity. We would somehow have to be less than human for this to be the case. Like the villain in the Bond movie of this name who could not feel pain. Beauty is as natural to us as a baby squealing with joy and a person’s spontaneous smile and laughter. We cannot help ourselves. Its how we do this human thing.

If the deficit exists it is our deficit. Blaming the world we live in for a lack of beauty is like blaming our kitchen for our hunger when the fridge is stocked, the pantry overflowing, and the stove in perfect working order. If we have not learned to cook its not the kitchen’s fault…..

Beauty is neither wholly of the world nor wholly of ourselves. Food is how we interact with the world for sustenance. What makes something food and what makes other things non-food? That’s a good question! Beauty is its own kind of nourishment, and we are often surprised at how many and unexpected the things are that can be found beautiful. Like frogs legs and insects: Qualifying as food tells us as much about the way of life as it does the digestibility of things. Beauty is at the intersection of humans and the world, and we find it in similar ways to how we find food.

But the world faces a crisis of starvation too. Whole populations are going without sufficient food. It may be hard not to think that since beauty can also be created, a situation that has less of that created beauty suffered some irreparable deficit. We sometimes feel we need to fix the world, add more beauty to it like replenishing water in a well, grain in a silo. A world overflowing with beauty would be a wondrous thing! Truly!

And you won’t get an argument from me that we should stop adding beautiful things to the world. The problem, as I see it, is that its one thing to make the world more appealing, but something altogether different to make people more sensitive to the nuance. The danger, as I see it, is that we can focus too squarely on the volume of ‘beautiful’ things and not on our ability to hold them. The thing we have to keep in mind is that a world replete with beauty will do no one any good if nobody gets it. Its as much an issue of capacity to make sense as it is quantity and quality.

The question is, how do we help more people see more beauty in the world as it is? How do we train them? Is a narrow diet more informed than a broad palate? Can we feed the world on cockroaches when very few people consider them worth eating?

My sense is that our ability to see beauty is like using a limb in that it gets stronger, more competent, with exercise. It also seems that cross training has mutual benefits and that obsession and exclusivity warp our capacity. Perhaps overuse will make us jaded, lessen the impact of beauty in our lives. We can become musclebound and rigid if we don’t take breaks or nurture other aspects of our lives. Variety seems healthy. Poor quality diet and scarce opportunities can weaken us. But who doesn’t enjoy the odd glass of wine with dinner or occasional dessert afterwards? A balance and moderation seems healthy.

Artists are simply folks who have peered behind doors and fashioned keys for us to use. There is no guarantee that everyone will know what to do with the key presented to them, but artists are trying to show something important, and often that thing is beauty. These artists are trying to show that beauty can be found here, in this particular way. They are trying to show us that the world does have these amazing possibilities. They are inventing the language that captures these things for us. They are like chefs preparing meals with unusual ingredients. Yes its edible, but is it food for us?

It turns out there is far greater capacity for the world to reveal beauty than to give forth meals. But the world is not enough. We have to meet it half way. We have to turn the keys, exercise our muscles, and keep our minds open. Curiosity is the first step to even knowing there’s a door to be opened. Humility is the sidekick to curiosity in that we continually need to admit we don’t yet know the full story. The sum total of beauty has yet to be laid before us, and if we quit looking for it or imagine we’ve already skimmed the cream of the crop, our arrogance will only be matched by our ignorance.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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