Being yourself

Kelly Kessler asked me about the point behind the point of my last post on “The anatomy of an artistic theft”: How do I feel about the issue of originality in pottery? I will share my response in just a bit, but I wanted to first make the point that the question of originality can indicate a specific intention or sometimes merely a side effect of our other intentions. In other words, we can aim at being original, or we can aim at other things and the results can simply play out as original (or not).

I sometimes get the sense that contemporary art only respects novelty, and that therefor many artists are driven only to express something independently original. And it should be very obvious that this is an intention that only incidentally puts our selves in the frame. Being ‘original’ does not mean the same thing as being ‘myself’, does it? If we were to aim at being ourselves what if this meant that sometimes, or quite often, we were not original? So my question, then, is whether it is more important to be original or to be true to yourself, whatever that may mean?

True originality may only be possible in a vacuum. The reality is that we all stand on the shoulders of things that have come before us. We can’t help but use the tools that have been provided for us. And often what we can add to that collective culture lies in  giving our own interpretations of these details, sometimes just a twist of emphasis, and only rarely is it something entirely new.

So why have I contrasted originality with being oneself? Ben Carter makes this case in his excellent post from this morning. If we are merely cherry picking, the details we make use of can be fragments that don’t add up, and the message they convey can then be hard to figure out. But when the details become integrated in a larger whole they can speak with a larger coherence. They will make sense because they represent something that belongs together.

Originality is marked out by being disconnected from other things. So in a sense, trying to be original is trying to be disconnected, and our originality may or may not fit with the rest of who we are. If we are aiming at being original we are not always aiming at being ourselves. We may even get forced into things we don’t like just for the sake of originality. Does this seem potentially misguided to anyone else? Trying new things can be enlightening and valuable, and maybe an important occasional activity, but to make ‘originality’ our life’s work at the cost of things we already believe in seems odd.

Sometimes we are schizophrenic and our parts don’t always fit well together. Sometimes we are inconsistent and contradictory. But we also have ways of expressing ourselves that point to a larger whole (maybe including our inconsistencies and contradictions). And representing this is how we can also ‘be ourselves’. I have learned this, I like this, I am feeling like this today. For me, the issue of originality is just a distraction, a side issue from the really important work of just making the things I like to make.

Here is my response to Kelly:


Thanks for the enticing questions, Kelly!

Actually, this post was sort of a response to my previous post on “close encounters with the collective unconscious”. In that post the point I was trying to make is that we often get pressure to stand out by contributing original work, but in many instances this originality is only very close to the surface or merely disguised by our own lack of focus or our own poor understanding of our actual influences. And the funny thing (to me) is that because we are somewhat obsessed with this need for originality we overlook the fundamental ways in which we are usually not original. We often don’t even recognize that, “Hey, I’ve actually seen that shape somewhere else before” (for instance). The similarity of many particulars is an inescapable limitation on all our creative efforts. We simply are not always aware of how indebted we are in even our most basic artistic expressions. So in a sense, the priority on the question of originality kind of misses what I’m aiming at.

Because of a variety of factors and influences we may simply be stuck rehashing ideas of others that we have already digested. Or, as I suggested in that other post, there may be deeper limitations on what things are possible either for the human imagination or for the physics and logic of geometries we can express. The idea that there is nothing new under the sun. I’m not claiming any answer to this, but I thought my little case study of my own post-mortem would be a good example of just how original a ‘new’ form can sometimes fail to be. But since I’m not aiming at originality this is an obsession that makes little impression on me.

So I guess what I was trying to communicate is that the practice of avoiding influences has limitations (avoiding influences as the flip side of a need for originality). And that therefor there can be positive use made of actively pursuing new source material. Not pursuing originality, in other words, but pursuing new things to try out, whether self originated or not. It doesn’t matter. We should feel we have permission to use existing ideas of others and not fret so much about originality. But I have noticed that among some artists there seems to be an actual fear of contamination by other people’s art. Not just that they need to focus on their own projects but that even a hint of sharing an idea is unconscionable. They would rather reinvent some version of the wheel and put their name on it as long as they can ignore that wheels are fairly commonplace.

I suppose that if this is an attitude that works for some folks I have to accept that, but it does seem slightly dishonest: We simply can’t control all the influences that effect us or when they will impinge on our creative processes. Its as if not knowing an influence makes it palatable. And this attitude places not knowing where something may have originated as a higher virtue than consciously using other people’s ideas (stealing). Its like pretending that food that was dropped on the floor is edible as long as we don’t know about it: If contamination isn’t (or is) acceptable why should knowing about it make any difference? And if the contamination of ideas is inescapable isn’t pretending ignorance somewhat dishonest? If we actually care about being original then it would seem to be in our interest to be as open about our source material as possible. In other words, not sticking our heads in the sand so often.

So I guess to finally get around to answering your question I would say that originality is the wrong issue. And maybe this is what you mean by calling it something of a red herring. We have put originality on a pedestal, and worship it regardless of issues of quality, craftsmanship, or beauty (or usefulness, as you suggest). Originality is at most a stew of ingredients that many other people also use. It lies very close to the surface in most cases. And I would argue that what passes for originality is often less interesting than the works of humble craftsmen just aiming for beauty and for quality and craftsmanship.

Originality only has this prominence in modern art because high end galleries, academic institutions, and museums have sold us on the idea. In my opinion this attitude has gutted the actual relevance of a lot of contemporary art. It speaks to fewer people and with less clarity. When these institutions traded away beauty and craftsmanship for the project of breaking new ground the wholesome center and solid foundation of art was lost.

So I would say that originality is a misleading issue. But originality is a mantra for disciples of the elitist institutions. They place it as priority #1. Planting a flag in virgin creative forests is their only real measure of success. Breaking new ground is their only currency of value. But to me it seems that all this exploration of the artistic fringe is like an ever expanding bubble. The stuff out at the limits may or may not be interesting, but inside there is nothing. The bubble is empty. And the skin is being stretched ever so tight.

It used to be that art started with beauty, worked through craftsmanship, and ended with quality. This was a solid foundation of what it meant to be art (In the sense that all cultures throughout human history have expressed themselves creatively). Beauty connects a human artistic tradition to the society it was meant to serve. Contemporary art serves a small elite crowd who can afford and (maybe) understand its pretensions.

I would like to think that when things fall out in original ways that something interesting may have happened. But this is a separate issue from whether what was created was worth giving life to, how it adds to human expression. Beauty never has to apologize. Humans have expressed the need for beauty in their lives as long as they have crafted material culture to manifest it. This seems to be a core value for human life. And when cultures became too complex for each individual to be in charge of creating beauty we gave the project to specialists who would preserve the ideas of a culture’s beauty for us.

But today beauty is old hat for the professional artists, and is usually trumped by the shifting target of novelty. But originality for the sake of being original may or may not add value to human experience. When it is done well originality sometimes strikes a chord with other human beings. Occasionally we are amused, sometimes bemused, and often we are merely confused. Contemporary art often winds up on the fringes of irrelevance and esoteric justification. Even what sometimes passes as original is often merely a new shiny surface. Just don’t pick too deeply beneath. There are visual references, technical tools, and possibly even the limits of function and human imagination that it was built from.

So I guess for me, wanting to talk about originality is often the excuse to neglect more interesting concerns. I know that I personally think the idea of originality is less fascinating than whether I like what is being done. In my own work I give myself permission to use anything and everything. Originality is almost beside the point (for me).

But if originality is all that academics want to talk about do we need to be sucked into their myopic little fantasy? Are we right to disown beauty and function and craftsmanship so casually? And yet we do. We often unintentionally treat originality as a siren song. I’m just looking for a few brave souls to tie themselves to the mast, to bind themselves to the rigging, to hear the call but to ignore it.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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27 Responses to Being yourself

  1. Judy Shreve says:

    I’m responding with a quote that says it better and more succinctly than I could:

    “Even in art and literature, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring a twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C.S. Lewis)

    • What a fantastic quote! Why can’t I ever use so few words to make a point? Hah!

      I know what he’s saying, and I don’t really object to the last sentence including “you will… become original“. He could have said that “By telling the truth you will be yourself” instead, and made basically the same point. The important part is not originality but intentions, and this is what I was getting at in the post. Thanks for sharing the quote! Its a keeper!

  2. Tracey says:

    “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”

    • I think I understand that…. “No man who bothers about originality will ever be original”. Trying to be original is not the same as being original (The picture of a pipe is not a pipe. A map is not the territory). And so aiming at originality isn’t just misguided but is also self-defeating. Do I have that right?

      So the deeper question is: “What does this teach us about originality?” Its not as straight forward as, say, generosity, or being funny. You can try to be funny and actually come out with some laughs. And you can try to be generous and actually make a positive difference in other people’s lives. But you can’t try to be original and get there from trying. Hm…. I suppose I need to think about that some more….

      My quick answer is that originality itself is close to meaningless, if only because origins can always be taken a step further back. There is always some other stone propping up an explanation of where something started. Like the turtle that the world rests on: “What’s under that turtle?”, “Another turtle”, and so on to infinity. Its turtles all the way down. “I learned that from Michael Simon, who learned from Warren MacKenzie, who learned from Bernard Leach, who learned from Shoji Hamada, and he learned from his teacher”, and so on. How far back do we want to take this regression? Just how honest do we want to be?

      Talking about originality starts to resemble a child’s uttering “Why?” after every explanation you give. The question itself eventually becomes meaningless. Its not a real question when its asked in that way. It only looks like a question. Delineating what began with you might be a similar quest: In one sense everything, and in another sense nothing. My hands made this thing, but there were precedents.

      And so most claims of originality can be looked at as suspect, arbitrarily pinpointing a turtle to stop at, and says more about our standards than it does about the subject in question. We are kind of vague about the notion of originality. In a sense my hands are the immediate origin of the pots I make, but the ideas and details are polluted with connections to other people’s work. There is nothing new under the sun, but we can’t step in the same river twice. And both these things are true, depending on how you look at it. Its so confusing….

      I’m just thinking off the top of my head, but did any of that make sense? Anyone care to take a stab at this?

      • Judy Shreve says:

        I really think it’s about honesty or finding your authenticity not originality. When we first start out with anything new – we need to mimic others in order to learn. Painters copy the masters in order to learn painting techniques. Most of the clay classes and workshops I’ve taken have required me to make what the teacher is making in order to learn how to manipulate the clay. But if I try the new technique enough times my own voice soon emerges. I don’t have to try to be original.

        I think in all mediums there are two parts in learning something new. First would be the time it takes to master the techniques and materials — or when I have enough ‘tools’ to say what I wants to say. Then the second part comes when my voice/honesty/originality rises above technique or rises above ‘learning technique.’

        I believe a really successful piece is when the work contains not only the voice of the artist but the voice of the medium as well.

        I think sometimes we continue to take classes long after we have enough technique. Maybe we are afraid that we don’t have a voice yet when really what we need most is to just do more work.

        I also think we have so many images of great work available to us today. Most of us never think our work is good enough to be successful, so we look outside ourselves for inspiration and try to mimic what we think is someone else’s success. To me that’s why we are having this discussion. Not everyone is willing to do the work it takes to have their own voice emerge. And why it appears only some folks are original – those are the folks that do the most work.

        A great John Cage quote:

        “The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.”

        • Good stuff Judy! I think we are on the same page on a lot of things. I like how you describe starting from how we learn from others’ example to learning how to express ourselves. And mimicking is a valid stepping stone. And I also agree that the ‘voice’ that comes out of all this hard work can be intimately personal, and that learning to manifest this is a much more worthwhile task than straight copying or striving for the next new thing.

          So I agree that honesty is a better motivation than originality. The problem I see is that when we talk about authenticity, honesty, we tend to also put it on a pedestal, as if we were freezing this one moment of articulation in time. If we really want to be honest about honesty we would admit that we continually change. I can honestly say that I love this one thing right now, and honestly hate it some other time. I am bored with something and excited by it in turns.

          The amount of change most of us go through in a single year eclipses the change in our art by about day 3. How many life changing events do we go through? Split from the person we’ve been seeing, fall in love with someone else, grow a garden, adopt a new pet, send our kids off to college, become a grandparent, have surgery, read an awesome book, vote in an election, make new friends, quit our job, etc. We make our world something new everyday. And unless my art expresses all this variation do I still lay legitimate claim to honesty?

          So when we hitch our little buggy to a stable notion of authenticity we wrap chains about this one moment in time where that was something true about us. As we evolve and grow as people we often leave that ‘authenticity’ trapped in its infant’s clothing. We dress it up not to reflect the honest changes we are going through, but to reflect the habit of working in this one way. But in some sense our addictions are authentic expressions of ourselves. They are just not the whole story. An addict both loves and hates the needle, kicks the habit at times and binges at others. Performing the dance of our addictions is also a floating target. And so the question of one way of being authentic is not so simple, is it?

          You can choose to say the same thing over and over again, but getting stuck with only one way of expressing myself doesn’t seem to be the thing I want to settle for. I want to continue to learn. I want to see if I can sing opera as well as honkey tonk. If I want to be truly honest I will apply this ‘voice’ to as many modes of expression as I can. And if all this variety is interesting, why would finding a single expression be that important? Why would we want to freeze time and capture this one ‘unique’ moment in a bottle?

          So I think there are as many problems with how we treat authenticity and having a voice as there are with the idea of originality. My advice is to make what you want to make. Don’t worry about being original and don’t worry about having a unique voice. In other words, don’t aim at these things. Aim at the things you like. And don’t stop learning. Don’t let having a ‘voice’ be the excuse not to do something different. Continue to grow and evolve, and don’t settle for the easy way out, the comfort zone. Unless you want to.

          You can stop growing if you want to. But you can also be honest about why cages are appealing. They are not inevitable and they are not necessary. They are a choice we are faced with. Nothing more and nothing less. The safe road is not a bad road. The safe road is not a good road. It is one road among many, and you choose it or you do not. And your choice determines what things will follow. And its all up to you.

          So what’s more important? Doing what you like? Or being original? Or being unique? Or having an authentic voice? Or any of these other things we put on pedestals? What is the right thing to aim at? What is the right thing to strive for? Why are we doing what we are doing? Are we doing it to be authentic or are we simply doing it? Are we doing it because ‘having a voice’ is what is important? Well, who said it was? And why would I believe them?

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    “You must unlearn what you have learned… Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” – Master Yoda

  4. “Thankfully there is still a little of the unknown left in our work, in our business. Things can be so predictable that the possibility of gambling or taking a chance on your instincts becomes a rarity. As my pal Wally McNamee once explained with great simplicity, our work is essentially about “anticipating.” What might happen, what might not happen. But you always have to be ready.” This is a quote from a photojournalist’s blog, commenting about many important changes in his field that I found pertinent to this discussion: There are so many things about clay, glazes, firing, throwing, coil/slab/altering that I cannot possibly know. And here’s a real eye-opener: there are at least as many (if not more) things about me, the ‘artist,’ that are unknown, depending on how open/closed and available/missing I am at any given moment. I suppose for me it’s pretty simple. It seems to me it’s the unique combination of the artist and what they ‘know,’ versus what they are willing to learn (access), that make their art unique. It does have to do with authenticity, integrity, and the like, but to me these are spiritual terms (do we hate that word?). I am not a potter, per se, and may never be, according to some lights. But there is a soul yearning within me to regularly make things of clay. Giving that yearning free expression, listening to the clay, relating in the unique way with all the parts of myself I can access, incorporating all the behaviours of the media in it’s conception, creation, execution, and production– both the known and the wondered about (allowing for the ‘happy accidents’ of process)– these are all elements I see employed in original work, but I believe it happens as by-product, not from intent to make something original for it’s own sake. And (I hope this is not too much a swerve off the cliff, I do want to talk about this) “It used to be that art started with beauty, worked through craftsmanship, and ended with quality.” My earliest knowledge of original art is cave drawings, dating back 40,ooo years. I don’t know if beauty was the beginning? it may well have been desire/hunger? or is that a kind of beauty? did craftsmanship come into play? were less capable artists denied permanence on the inner walls? or was it a prayer? was it a representation of the symbiotic connection between the natural world and our need to control it? Hey, we are throwing ideas around, aren’t we! But my point is this: there are as many reasons to make art as there are ways to make art and artists willing to dedicate the time, energy, and materials to that end. Of course, I’ve gone into a rambling discourse on your blog only to agree with you, that the pursuit of making something original simply to say I’ve made something original is pretty lame, in my book– maybe totally so. My feeling and belief is that bringing all of who I am to combine with all of what I can eke from the medium at hand, being vulnerable to the unexpected, not solely focused on outcome, can and will make magic. It’s the best of what we do. We do it so completely and effortlessly when we are two, and three, and four– sometimes longer, but not often. Too often we get hung up on outcome, and forget the lessons of the experience, and the growth that comes naturally from that. Often at some point we begin to crave attention, or have to make our living, and allow that to influence us as well. There are many distractions from the path, and I believe it costs greatly to be truly authentic in today’s world. Schmendrick, from Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, remains one of my favorite characters. He knows in his soul he is a true magician, but relies on parlor tricks and sleight of hand. He is overwhelmed when the magic overtakes his conjuring. He becomes what he knows he is only when he allows all he is to combine with all he does not/cannot know. He develops the give and take relationship of abandon and control, knowing and trusting, experience and hope. He empties himself and becomes the vessel, and then fills the vessel with all that he is. I don’t know how you teach that? So as a clay exercise, asking someone to make something original seems laughable, until I see a young potter making magic. Then I really am laughing, with pure unadulterated delight!

    • WOW!!!!

      I wish I had held off posting my latest post just seconds before, because this is an incredibly beautiful comment you have written. It should be allowed to breathe, and I hope people come back to read it and to respond to the great thoughts you have shared with us.

      I promise to come back and respond in a day or so myself (I have already spent too much time on the computer today), but I at least wanted to thank you for sharing these wonderful thoughts.

      Thanks Cara!!!!!

      • You’re welcome Carter. Not sure it made any sense, but I do thank you for the topic, and the forum. Please don’t apologize for blogging ahead of my comments! I wouldn’t have comments without your blog!

      • You’re welcome Carter– thank you for the topic and the forum. Not sure I made any sense, but I do know I wouldn’t have any comments without your blog. So keep blogging!

    • I love this quote: “It seems to me it’s the unique combination of the artist and what they ‘know,’ versus what they are willing to learn (access), that make their art unique. It does have to do with authenticity, integrity, and the like, but to me these are spiritual terms.” I think for me the word that appeals the most is “integrity” or maybe “independence”. I think of these in spiritual terms as well. For me the soul isn’t some metaphysical substance. I wouldn’t know what that’s supposed to mean anyway. Rather, for me the soul is the extent to which we are not being controlled by outside influences, the extent to which we are self determined and free to do as we please. When I look around and see so many people living out stereotypes, letting other people do their thinking for them, just being lazy and following the party line, the dogma of a belief system, what our parents told us, etc, it seems that we are less than what we should be. We are then living as copies of someone else or someone else’s thinking. And this gets difficult to figure out when so much about us relies on the tools the world has provided for us. And that’s why I believe that since we can’t help but use words other people have used, can’t help but think thoughts that other people have thought, it doesn’t matter so much where they come from as where we take them to. That is the thing we can be responsible for. That is what our integrity needs to be based on. This could be a much bigger discussion, so maybe I will leave it for another time….

      This quote is great too: “Giving that yearning free expression, listening to the clay, relating in the unique way with all the parts of myself I can access, incorporating all the behaviours of the media in it’s conception, creation, execution, and production– both the known and the wondered about (allowing for the ‘happy accidents’ of process)– these are all elements I see employed in original work, but I believe it happens as by-product, not from intent to make something original for it’s own sake.” As a by-product makes sense to me too.

      The point I was making about art starting with beauty isn’t that it is just beauty and only beauty that folks were concerned with. Other issues of course motivate any effort to put something new in the world. My point was that in all those efforts beauty was a part of what people wanted to express. As my anthropologist friend said, beauty is how we decide between what we like and what we don’t, and this makes it a moral circumstance, that it is right to do it this way, and that other ways are not good enough. They painted those figures for possibly all the reasons you suggest, but the way they were painted was to aim at something that was better than the alternatives. But my point also was a bit more straightforward and humble. People have always decorated themselves and made choices about how they will present themselves to the world. In every culture in every time people put paint on themselves, ribbons and bracelets, fancy clothes, a pair of new shoes, etc. We are aesthetic creatures as much as we are anything. And so how could art not start with this fascination with beauty? In the animal world the beasts show their colors to attract mates, do little dances, ruffle their plumage. At the very least our fascination with beauty goes back that far: Who will be a suitable mate? Where do I find beauty in the world?

      And of course I love your last point: “So as a clay exercise, asking someone to make something original seems laughable, until I see a young potter making magic. Then I really am laughing, with pure unadulterated delight!”

  5. Cara De Celles says:

    So, what if we took your description of an integral, independent soul (I love how you describe this and could talk about that for days too) and combined it with your use of the word ‘beauty,’ and called it instead identification, or recognition?

    I’m remembering the first time I beheld a specific matcha chawan by an ancient master potter. Until that moment, I had only been chided for my craftsmanship, and had ogled works by others, and despaired. I could never do that (though I did learn to, yes!) .

    I suppose it was beauty, if we have to distill it into a single descriptor, that permeated my reaction– but there was something else, something more provocative, evocative, something in the gut that at once hungered and resonated. It wasn’t an adornment, like putting on shoes or make-up. It wasn’t a surface treatments, it was in the soul of the cup.

    I believe you are on a quest to find and share something deeper– else you wouldn’t keep blogging? Maybe this is my hang up, and I should just get over it, but beauty today has taken on a counterfeit guise that has no soul. I believe you alluded to this in an earlier blog, how customers overlook the truly beautiful pot for the latest fad?

    So can we go deeper, get beyond ‘beauty?’

    • I know what you are saying, but I think talking about it that way is potentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just because most folks are lazy about where they see beauty doesn’t mean that we need to dispense with beauty. Quite the opposite in fact! I think we need to do a better job of educating people about the different kinds of beauty there are, teach them to see beauty in new ways. The fact that some beauty is close to the surface and some is more elusive just means that the lazy will settle for what is most accessible.

      I think you are maybe confusing things by talking about beauty with soul and without it, as if these were somehow properties of the objects themselves. At least, it sounds like you are talking metaphysics here. And don’t get me wrong. I know what you mean. The more complex and mysterious (difficult to locate) something is the more we feel there is something else standing behind it. But I’m just not sure that the sense I was talking about “soul” applies to inanimate things. Obviously I need to do some more thinking about this issue, but the difference isn’t between easy and difficult as much as it is in the intentions. The things that were produced by independent or imitative intentions are still only things, and not the intention itself. We can intend the ‘easy’ as well as the ‘difficult’, and both these things seem as susceptible to being created with that sense of soulful independence. They are just two different things being aimed at.

      And it is possible that two exactly the same things can be produced with the opposite intention, one as independent and one as imitation. So the object can’t be the important thing. That was part of my whole tiff with the originality camp. They seem to want to confuse the object with the intention, and say that only the original ‘owner’ can lay legitimate claim to an idea. But if its true that the important thing is where you take these ideas and not where they came from, then the object or idea itself is kind of irrelevant. Those are stopping points, and the real issue is the intention to carry these things forward in some independent direction, or not.

      Does that make any sense? I still need to find better words to get my head completely around this issue, so please let me know what you think. This is a great conversation to be having!

  6. The first paragraph said exactly what I intended to say, or to get you to say.
    As to the second, yes, I am talking metaphysics. Or at least quantum mechanics. And soul. I know you meant animate soul, but when I pour my energy and intent into clay, which is composed of the same elements as my being, I animate the dirt, and give it soul.
    Look, I realize this is way, way out there. But I also believe it is primal, and was at least part of the reason the cave drawings were made– and also part of why certain art, certain objects, appeal to us, in spite of the fact there may be other, more ‘beautiful’ things sitting right next to them.
    Okay, now I’ve let you know I’m certifiable. I may come back and venture more later– but what I’ve said is so far out there I’ve got to go and process it!

    • Hah! No, this is really interesting! There is a huge part of me that wants to believe in this transcendent quality, and I’m not hung up on the need for some kind of empirical verification of stuff. The question still remains that if we put this soul into an object does it stay there, does it have the same impact over time, does it mean the same thing to each person observing it? The answers to these questions just don’t seem very clear. So I wonder if you had an object that was put together with soul, and an exact physical copy that obviously was not (maybe it was scanned by a laser, the data fed into a computer, and then the equipment was constructed to industrially replicate the exact proportions and material constituents, something that sounds futuristic but is actually somewhat in use today), could you tell the difference? If its possible to make a mistake, then what does it mean to make a mistake?

      You are saying that yes you can tell the difference ( I am guessing), which one was which without being told, and I’m saying I’m just not so sure. I’d like to think we could, I just don’t know. Maybe sometimes yes and sometimes no? Would we always know when we were observing something intrinsic to an object and when we are reading something into it? I guess I need to think about this some more. Fascinating idea, though!

      • Here’s another quick thought: What if we hold that we do put this soul into our work, but that it was not something observable. Would that matter? Does it have to be observable for it to be important? Maybe not, right? And so it may be more of something along the lines of faith.

        Did you see the movie “A Beautiful Mind”? Do you remember when he proposes? Her response was perfect. Check it out if you don’t remember it. Another way of looking at it is that all language has the same appearance, but it does different things in different circumstances. Sometimes we use language to state facts and sometimes we are making up stories, but the words themselves can actually look the same. I think sometimes we get confused that we are doing science with words when we are sometimes only taking poetic license.

        Words all just look so bloody the same. And if we let them just hang there by themselves it often isn’t clear what they are supposed to be doing. And that’s why talking things through helps to put them in better perspective, shows us where we are on to something and where we are mistaken.

        Any of that make sense?

      • Of all the responses you could have written, this is the one I’m most delighted to see! My belief is yes, it stays there; yes, it has the same (or maybe greater?) impact over time; and no, it would not have the same impact on everyone. I do believe some people are blind to this intrinsic beauty, though I know recognition of it exists almost without exception in the very young. Maybe being uneducated or not open would prevent one from experiencing it?

        I am saying that yes, you could tell the difference in a copy. You, personally, but not everyone, necessarily, for the same reasons above– and I’m not sure reading something into it differs from recognizing the intrinsic. Is ‘beauty’ always immediately apparent, or does it come to us sometimes from understanding, or being enlightened, or educated?

        Something about the cloning process bothers me, but I’m not sure what it is. My mind wants to reject it out of hand, and so I need to examine what it is I can’t accept.

        I do believe once we are, or have ‘opened,’ recognition comes much more easily. I also believe the capacity continues to grow unimpeded unless we do something specifically to close off, or shut down.

        It fascinates me too. Glad you don’t need impircal proof, I don’t have any. I know my experience, and I know others who have shared or similar experience.

        I’ve saved this part for last, it’s the hardest for me to describe or discuss, and it may be the hardest to believe, but it is not possible, ever, to make a mistake. The intent to work from the soul is enough.

  7. Intriguing response! There are parts of this I am still trying to wrap my head around….

    I was actually talking about “mistakes” in terms of recognizing the soulfulness of objects, but what you are saying would also be interesting to consider: Can we be mistaken about what we are doing in making soulful objects? You say “no”, but I see a complicated scenario where in my mind the answer is not always so clear. Making things, to me, often means we have no idea what we are doing. Sometimes our consciousness is fragmented from what our hands are occupied with.

    I totally get the experience where I feel like I’m tapping into something transcendent, and sometimes this translates into the pot I’ve made, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the results are special, but sometimes they are kind of drab. And maybe that has more to do with my expectations, and I just can’t see that aspect of what I’ve done. But what does that mean?

    The truth of my process is that sometimes I have good studio days and sometimes there is a lot going on in my world but I can’t just wait for the good days to make pots. I often find that I can make really good work even while I’m distracted. I can be thinking about events in my life or issues like these and just turn parts of the process over to my hands. If intentions are mostly conscious, and something we do with our minds, quite often I am trying to get to a place where I have NO intentions. I am trying to just see what happens. I am aiming for a state of mind where I am mostly absent, not making judgments, not holding up the process by giving too much credit to my very small mind or my limited imagination. The clay has as much to do with the results because it isn’t so much about ME, its about the relationship I have to the materials.

    Its not always about my ego, and so the soul of an object seems to transcend my participation in its crafting. So to me it sometimes seems like soul can slip into the process by the absence of intentions. It seems to sometimes have more chance of manifesting because I’m NOT trying to put something specific there. As in, I’m also not trying to copy someone else or especially not copy myself. I’m not trying to live up to expectations or a stereotype of what things are supposed to look like. I’m just letting it happen and seeing where it takes me.

    So the question I have is whether soul can be unintentional. And if its even sometimes or partly unintentional does this mean that in those circumstances we can’t make mistakes merely because we didn’t intend anything? Or if intentions are important can we avoid making mistakes simply because meaning to do something is all that’s required? Is the intention itself infallible?

    But even if the intention is infallible we still have to put it into action, into the physical form itself. And it seems we can consciously intend to do something but not pull it off. We can mean something specific but have it come out all wrong. You say, “The intent to work from the soul is enough”, but I look at intentions and I see a tangled web of mishap and frustration. Intentions can be beautiful, but they can also fail to manifest in the ways we would like. I believe intentions are perhaps the best and worst things we can offer to the world: intending to do good and intending to do harm make the world a better and a worse place respectively. So I’m not disparaging intentions. I just know that despite my best intentions things don’t always work out. And so it seems that intentions are not always enough, as important as they are.

    And this leads to questions about what can happen to objects that we HAVE been successful in creating soulfully. The interesting thing is that I can ruin so many brilliant pots with a bad glaze or a bad firing. Have I killed the soul of those objects? What happens when I get a pot out of the glaze kiln that truly is this soulful object, but after a few years of using it a crack develops, or a chip. Does this take away from the soul it had? What if I break the handle off completely? What then? What if it smashes into a thousand fragments? What then? Is the soul still there in the parts? Is the soul merely diminished but still present? Or is soulfulness an either/or proposition, and something either has it or it does not?

    I have no earthly clue. I’m still trying to get my head around these issues…. Some of it makes sense and some I have trouble reconciling. Maybe it doesn’t need to make sense. Maybe that is asking too much. How do you feel about it?

    • Okay you’ve sneaked two in while I wasn’t looking! both have compelling comments and questions I want to pursue, but it’s going to take me a while. Feel free to sneak other thoughts in here while I struggle to find my voice– soul work is pretty quiet yet very intense in this house! and thanks for challenging me with your observations. First I’m going to find the clip from A Beautiful Mind (I only saw it once, it’s been a while) and then I’ll come back.

    • I am laughing, I hope with you– meaning I hope you are laughing too. This is not one of those beating your head against the wall exercises,Carter, in fact, it is one of those where the head has little to do. I understand the dichotomy of ‘needing no impirical evidence,’ and ‘having a hard time wrapping my head around it.’

      We do often choose to believe things for which we have no proof, and equally dismiss things, demanding proof before we’re convinced. Remember the reference to integrity, and the positive response that elicited? I am become (made) whole regarding myself or the world around me when my head, heart, and body are in agreement. This is a Native American teaching– all must be at peace. The chakra centers and the alignment of them through meditation open us to this energy that exists both within and without. So ‘does it have to be observable to be important?’ is the question, and the answer is no, absolutely not, but yes, it will be, at least to one person! The basics of quantum mechanics state that the great unknown in any instance is the observer, and matter will respond So at that very elemental level, that primal capacity, we are completely able to choreograph our circumstance. On the corporeal, slower, and ‘finite’ plane, we do this when we seek to work as one with our collective unconscious (enjoin the observer)– and make a beautiful piece of clay, listening fully to the clay, or memory, our feelings, our head, in harmony. We work out anything that is bothering us on any of these levels and any others that present themselves. We forms, and we may not have perfection, but we have been perfectly in tune with the process at the level we are in that process. Then we give it over to the magic of the glazes, and the fire, which will make it not only inherently beautiful, but useful. And then we don’t like the result? What a cruel joke! How sick that the soul could have punk’d us so!

      A fairly well-known potter had recently not gotten the expected result from a process that had served for years. All they expressed was anger, disappointment, disaster, frustration, dismissal. What I saw was a soul teaching toward growing bigger, conquering the ego, which is the only work of the soul. The ego work is much simpler– to eliminate anything that stands in the way of ego. So which do we choose?

      By and large, the ego way, it is certainly much more clear, if not easier.
      But even the failed pot, the one that showed so much promise, will resonate with soul– at least, mine do. You and I both want to reject them on some intellectual level (this was not even close to what I intended!) and yet they are surely leading to new ways of doing things, new ways of looking at things, new explorations beyond our understanding — oooha, or acceptance! I don’t understand this. It defies logic. And we want logic!

      It is a failed pot, so we hide it and begin again, hoping to correct that mistake. Then someone comes over and actually beelines for the pot among the discards and in progress general studio detritus, grabs up ‘the mistake’ and loves it! Part of soul work as I understand it is not for me to have your experience for you, but to allow you your own. So if something resonates with someone, something in my work touches some memory, or longing, or primal reflection, I cannot tell them they must be wrong, mistaken, insane! And my experience also tells me that if one person has this reaction, then others will too. I am not to discount it.

      Soul to soul, there is a language I don’t understand, except that I can feel that tiny little bell tinkling somewhere near my cavernous heart and hear tiny, faint, musical notes begging me to pay attention; or feel a glow of warmth, a heat, a light begin to pulse, and it brightens and strengthens my resolve along a particular path. Sometimes it’s a niggling feeling, a little voice, but if I’m paying attention, not ignoring (or being ignorant!) I’ll get a clue I’m on the right path– or I may want to turn around.

      We are not all at the same place in soul development, either as creator of art, or appreciator/collector. So we will have varied experiences. That is why I cannot accept ‘mistakes’ as being possible. The only things that matter are those which continue to make us grow,
      and I believe we will, one way or another, unless we purposely close ourselves off to it. Even then I believe we’re given chance after chance, example after example, and experience after experience– I can’t say this about the mind, or the body, so I believe the magic happens in the soul.

      Shmendrick (my favorite character again) learned to say this: Magic, do what you will. Like what you do when you’re not forcing it, not thinking about it, but just creating with the clay. Is creating a soul idea? hm…. what do you think?

      • Hah! Of course I’m laughing. A bit at least, since I’m not sure I understood all you were saying. The one question you asked at the end, “Is creating a soul idea”, I would respond to by saying “Yes”. I could go on about what “yes” actually means here, but I will keep it short(er). And as interesting as our conversation has been (the parts of it I understand!), we probably have strayed a bit from my intention of calling out the dubious ideas that afflict us.

        The one thing I would say to wrap this up (potentially) is that even with the correct position that sometimes the truth, wisdom, important beliefs, what have you, defy proof, there still is such a thing as superstition, and there still is such a thing as delusion. That proposal scene which I thought was so great in that movie is of course only a small statement in a film that is essentially about a person who is afflicted by daily hallucinations. And as smart as that guy is, his world almost comes apart because he does not have such a good grip on reality. How do we know when we are suffering superstitions or delusions when from the inside they just look like our normal convictions? Obviously we can’t just depend on ourselves to always figure this stuff out. We have to see how these beliefs work in the world, and part of that means interacting with other people who may agree or disagree with us.

        And as I said in one of those responses up there, part of the problem is only exacerbated by the uniformity of our words in expressing things like statements of fact, poetry, story telling, in short, the whole range of human expression. Belief starts with how we express it, in words and in actions, how we learn to make it a part of our lives and also how we talk about it. Sometimes there is a huge connection between our words and our actions, and sometimes our words just kind of hang there unsupported by anything more stable than a collection of other words.

        And sometimes our words describe our point of view, but seen from another perspective they make no sense. It can look like we are pointing at things in the world but our words barely touch them, not in the ways we think they do, or not at all. They only seem like words that point to real things because they are the same words we use in other circumstances and they do work in the real world at those times (Like the color red, for instance. When I say that “the unicorn standing over there is red” it only seems like I am talking sense. We all know what the word ‘red’ means and we even know what a unicorn is supposed to be. So how can a sentence we understand which uses real words and sounds like we are pointing at something actually not be doing those things? Is this important?). Smart normal people simply don’t always agree, even when they claim to be talking fact and not just opinion. How is this possible when things seem so obvious to us? Are we not right thinking people? Is everyone who doesn’t see what we see a moron or a nincompoop?

        I don’t know if I can make sense of this, but I think the important thing is to try, to try seeing where our words make contact with the world, to see how they match up with other people’s behavior, and then with an open mind decide if we are talking sense of a sort, or when it comes down to it merely talking nonsense. And being self critical and open minded has to come first. If we are already decided and we are absolutely sure of ourselves we have closed the door on all other alternatives. But sometimes it makes sense to acknowledge a bit of humility, especially where we won’t admit there being evidence, or that the evidence is not something that can be shared. The more dogmatic and inflexible our convictions are the less we probably share them with other people. And is that a recipe for truth, I ask you?

        Just some things to think about…. Thanks for the conversation!

  8. My joy, and my laughter rest primarily in the fact that we can exchange these ideas freely– that we can experience the magic of dialogue! and especially that you are so open to ideas, to their expression, to exploration! I believe it is rare, to be so open. One of the things easiest to admire, one of the most attractive about your blogs is how willing you are to put it out there and how fluidly you accept what others offer: the observations, the questions, the thoughts about what inspires and disturbs you. I’ll never stop thanking you for that. There may be others, as in ‘more than one way to skin a cat,’ or ‘more than one path to enlightenment,’ but the things you present, and the way you present them are a good recipe for truth!

    • Thanks Cara! From where I sit it mostly feels like I am fumbling around in the dark. Sometimes I think I can see a light somewhere off in the distance, and sometimes there is enough ambiance to see vague shapes close at hand, but all too often I end up stumbling into something or stubbing my toe. I know I’ve banged my head into things a few times recently…. But I’m glad you appreciate my efforts. I thought they might be entertaining for other folks to witness, and that maybe some would learn what not to do from my example….

      I’m so glad that you and a few others are out there helping to shed some light on my little experiment in exploration! And its great to know that there are fellow travelers out there. My hope is that together we can look out for each other and spot the obstacles that surround us. I know I can’t do it all on my own, and I especially can’t see some of the things in my own shadow, or the stuff that is in back of me or that I’m standing on. Other people can usually see that stuff much easier. I feel I have already learned so much from this dialog. I am a better person because of it. Of that I have no doubt.

      So thanks again for being a part of this journey!

  9. Scott Cooper says:

    My hat’s off to both of you, Carter and Cara, for the wide, intriguing sweep of this conversation. It’s been very interesting and entertaining to observe, and I appreciate your willingness to throw all this out there in public, where the rest of us can learn from it. (Normally, I send my craziest, unbaked ideas to Carter via email. Better for me, worse for him.)

    I was sorely tempted to chime in several times, as the updates came through via the email subscription, but I managed to stay focused on sale week. When you got to all that talk about souls and things for which evidence isn’t required, I almost had to draw out my +5 Ginsu Knife of Rationalist Skepticism and start slicing and dicing… but fortunately, Carter saved me the effort with his may 7th post about superstition and unicorns. Thanks, man. I’d have made a hash of it anyways.

  10. Scott Cooper says:

    OK, I’ll hazard one foray into the actual discussion. Damnit, I can’t help myself.

    I see some additional problems with the scene from A Beautiful Mind, no matter how insightful or romantically irrational it may be. A) It’s a work of fiction that plays the “based on real events” game for credibility. B) The real John Nash was schizophrenic, so he’s not a good model to emulate along the lines of seeing things that others can’t entirely see. C) As Roger Ebert said in his review of the film (Google it): “He begins to find patterns where no patterns exist.” Or, to put that another way, he uses his beautiful mind in part to discover truth, and in part to discover bullshit, with the catch being that he cannot distinguish between the two for himself. It takes an outside perspective to establish which is which.

    That, to me, is a core reason to keep pushing these discussions back to consensual reality and things that do require observable, repeatable facts in order to gain agreement and traction — e.g. a scientific worldview. Even when the ideas being discussed are originally inspired by shared gut instincts, or intended as poetic or metaphoric expressions of truth.

    In a modern, largely science-based society, it’s easy for us to take that worldview for granted, or to focus on the shortcomings of what it leaves out or hasn’t (yet) explained. And it’s understandable, and probably beneficial, for “right brained” artist types to be suspicious of “left brained” rational analysis. But too much reliance on concepts like magic, alternate planes and unicorns and pretty soon we’ll all be ” fumbling around in the dark”; perhaps pausing occasionally to burn one another at the stake in hopes of some illumination.

    • “But too much reliance on concepts like magic, alternate planes and unicorns and pretty soon we’ll all be ” fumbling around in the dark”; perhaps pausing occasionally to burn one another at the stake in hopes of some illumination.” That’s damn hilarious (!), except that it unfortunately describes our past quite perfectly….

      Agreed about consensual reality in the main, but the fact of human culture is rarely a predictor of whether we’ve got it right or not. We often merely find what we are looking for, and so burning witches DOES occasionally provide illumination. But still, its the best we’ve got. And it cuts the dangerous and delusional from the herd. Mass hallucination and uncritical worshiping of dogma is another matter I suppose….

      And that’s why I see the root of the problem as basically a failure to recognize the role of language in all this. We so take it for granted because it is so basic to our lives. Its both the skin we touch the world through and the filter that sorts all the information for us. And the fact that it is so fundamental to us only makes it the more tragic that we rarely have a clue about what tasks we are actually performing with it. Nothing wrong with poetry and storytelling, just be clear about when you are doing it.

      And I think Ebert’s position is flawed. It is the task of brains to find patterns, and the patterns are sometimes less about what’s being organized than how we are organizing it. When you get right down to it everything is interpretation, its just that some patterns are easier to pick out than others. The more subtle minds simply see patterns that are not there for other people. The problem with Crowe’s character wasn’t that he was finding patterns but that he was interpreting the patterns as intentional, as if they meant something specific. And that was his delusion (besides seeing imaginary people, of course).

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