This morning I had to do a double take as I was getting cereal together for my breakfast. I had set the coffee pot down inside a bowl I hadn’t yet cleaned from last night’s dinner, and turned to start pouring my cereal. From the corner of my eye I saw this:
Even from the corner of my eye I knew I had just witnessed a bolt of lightning. Or maybe because it only was from the corner of my eye (Sometimes if you stare at things directly you never really see them, you have to squint or look from your peripheral view). I have set my coffee pot down in similar if not the same ways, but was never before stuck by the image. My first thought this morning was: “Hey! I have seen that same kind of shape in Zygote’s covered jars! How cool is that!”
I grabbed my camera and took a few pics just the way I had first seen the image. And then as I started to get the pics onto my computer I realized: “I’ll be damned if that doesn’t also remind me of Don Reitz’s big pots….”
And then to top it all off I thought:”Hey dummy. You’ve made similar shapes yourself!” (Or, at least they are similar in my mind….) I was starting to feel like I had stepped into the movie “Close encounters of the third kind”, and I was seeing the same shape everywhere.
And when you get right down to it, this is a story that gets repeated in far too many examples to list here. So I wonder, what does this mean? Does the human imagination have some kinds of limits? Is it a case of seeing pictures in clouds, and some of us picking out similar things by mere coincidence? Or, is the human mind naturally drawn to certain images? I’m sure folks like Jung would tell us all about archetypes and the collective unconscious, but I’d rather hear what you all think. Do people’s imaginations pick the same kinds of details out by coincidence or is it something deeper? Do our pots sometimes seem familiar only by mistake and misadventure, or are we simply playing out the themes of our genetic psychological heritage? Or are we only unconsciously learning from each other and copying some of the detail by unintentional accident? Or on purpose? On purpose but at a level deeper than consciousness? Is it just the smallness of our world that we are all looking at the same kinds of things? Or is it a big cosmic joke and we are stuck repeating patterns, like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill?
Perhaps it is just that the physical logical possibility of shapes is limited and we are all merely playing in the same small sandbox? Kind of like the wisdom that there are only really 7 (or 11 depending on who you ask) stories, and that everything written is merely some variation of boy meets girl, girl meets boy, overcoming obstacles, betrayal, redemption, etc. Its not just that our minds are programmed a certain way, but that we all have to fit ourselves into the same small universe with its constricting rules and laws of physics , logic, and geometry. Is this what our ceramics instructors mean when they try to convey (perhaps a bit mysteriously) that “there is nothing new under the sun”, “nothing is original”, and that “it has all been done before”?
And the bigger question: As interesting as this may be, does it matter? Is there anything we can do with this information? If we ignore it will we be just as happy or even happier? Where do we fit on the divide between the unexamined life being not worth living and ignorance being bliss?
Well, one quick response is that if we truly digest this question it takes some of the burden off both feeling that we can’t imitate and that we have to reinvent everything ourselves. In fact, it gives us license to steal. If its already been done, so what? What’s the problem with me doing it as well? And if I don’t have to always come up with the entirely, absolutely new ideas myself, what’s to stop me from learning by other people’s example? There is nothing wrong with being inspired by other people if we take those ideas in our own direction. And the need to be wholly original at some deep level is only the burden of our superstitions and mythologies. What we call “new” is just the gloss of a surface variation. Originality is a difference in degree not in kind. Or something like that….
So maybe this really means that we should be looking at other people’s pots, that we should celebrate the diversity that we do have. I remember hearing about a potter who said he never puts up images of other people’s pots in his studio: Because he didn’t want to be influenced. I always thought that was silly and maybe a bit sad. As if other people’s pots were somehow infectious contaminants. Personally, I would rather see as many things as possible, open myself to as many variations as other people have come up with, live in the open clean air of the wide world, and not burrow down in some small hole of my own making. Or even worse, burrow down in a hole that someone else made, live in their home with only their furniture and thoughts and nothing of my own. But maybe that’s just me. I don’t know the answer or even if there is a right answer. These are just some ideas to think about.