So anyway, I taught again last night and ran into another of the pervasive stumbling blocks that seem to hold students up. This is related to the ideas I covered in the “Teaching through frustration” post and is another example of how students can set themselves up for less than pleasing results.
The problem (as I’ve encountered it again and again) comes down to an attitude of students that they have to “learn how to throw it right first” before they can play around with idiosyncratic or organic results. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a student say they have to make it ‘right’ before they can begin to appreciate something less than ‘perfect’.
And in a sense you can understand this motivation. Its pretty obvious when a lump of clay is a disaster and when its not. And who doesn’t want to avoid the disasters? But the confusion is that anything less than the ideal of perfection counts only as a failure. Sadly, the implication seems to be that nothing can be gained from ‘failures’, and happy accidents are as irrelevant as or in fact equivalent to disastrous mistakes. The sense is that there is only one correct way to advance.
Sometimes it gets expressed as “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” And just about every student who tells me this hauls out the example of Pablo Picasso. The mantra is that he had to learn how to paint realistically before he could veer off into cubism and what not. And the hidden assumption is that if Picasso had to do it, then obviously so must we all. And that, my friends, is The Sad Legacy of Pablo Picasso. I call it a curse.
So maybe the song was relevant after all. “Pablo Picasso was never called an A$$hole. Not in New York. Not like you.” In fact, comparing ourselves to Picasso is foolish at best and arrogant at worst. We are not Picasso, so why would we pretend the same rules apply to us as to him? Just because Picasso did things a certain way doesn’t mean it has to be right for us as well. Just because his own history worked out in one way doesn’t mean we have to follow exactly in his footsteps.
And I’m not arguing that it isn’t important to strive for control or precision. I’m simply objecting to the idea that the example of a genius has any necessary bearing on us mere mortals. Its not the only way to think about things or the only way to proceed in our lives. Its not as if we continually need to ask ourselves “What would Picasso do?” Are we really so lame?
What I’m suggesting is that we instead consider the life and times of Picasso merely as one option among many. His example is not an end in itself, but a possibility. And as such we should also learn to look at control and precision as means rather than as ends, as tools rather than objectives. What we should learn from Picasso is that it can be done this way, not that it should be.
Its like with centering clay on the wheel (the typical first stumbling block for beginners), you are always aiming for a range and the closer you get the more useful it is, the more things you can do. But there is, in fact, no such thing as “perfectly centered” clay (If you disagree, get out a microscope next time you think you’ve got it). That’s not the point. And you shouldn’t be held up by the phantom goal of having it ‘perfectly’ centered. Rather, there is a range that is acceptable and inside that you can work the clay profitably. Within this margin of acceptability the unevenness doesn’t interfere with your capacity to get shapes. Centering isn’t the goal: Its a tool to help you do things easier. Its a means for certain results.
And by easier I don’t mean ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’. Easier is not a measure of the value of results and difficult things are even sometimes valued precicsely for that reason (Unearthed diamonds vs synthetic ones, records in the Guinness Book of records, etc.). ‘Centered’ simply gives the process an advantage in achieving a specific range of results. That’s it. (Ron Meyers even claims he never learned how to center. Its a conceit, I know, but you should watch him throw if you need an example of a casual regard for ‘perfection’).
And yet the specter of perfection looms over so many students at this novice stage. Its as if they can’t feel any satisfaction in shapes that are not uniformly consistent or a version of some Greek idealized notion of aesthetic proportion. Its as if uneven is ‘wrong’, and not merely different.
How different things were for us as kids. Back then we so loved the process that every quirky result was its own new brand of magic. As adults in our culture somehow we have been consistently trained to love only the ‘perfect’ examples. Maybe its the odious influence of supermodels in advertising. ‘Perfection’ is what we are encouraged to admire and few things satisfy unless they meet these strict standards. Our minds are so boggled by this superstition that we can even discredit Picasso’s later work by claiming that it was only permissible once he had mastered the tools of perfection. In this altered Universe its as if that work would have been less valuable (even unthinkable) without his first having mastered realism….
So what does this have to do with anything? My point is that sometimes we have such unrealistic expectations that we fail to appreciate what we have and where we’re at. Its not wrong to strive to improve and to always work at getting better, but even ‘getting better’ means different things for different people. And sometimes ‘perfection’ is not all its cracked up to be. The conformity of opinion is just what advertising executives try to sell us on.
And things like improving are still only goals and agendas for our future. Its an eye cast somewhere other than the now. But in the meantime we also need to learn the value of the stepping stones that put us on this path. We need to look at the present as something with its own merit, its own worth, and its own lessons.
Beginners physically can’t make ‘perfect’ pots. Why should they have this standard at this or any stage?
What I mean is that they shouldn’t be trying to make something that they cannot make, but instead be trying to make the best that they can make. To only aim at an ideal is self defeating, in fact. Beginners should be focusing on what it is that they do do well, not comparing their pots to perfection. Improving is a process and it doesn’t always have a fixed end. Beginners should learn to appreciate the beauty that is less than perfect. Or, they should simply forget about the whole idea of perfection, and learn to see beauty in even their own awkward and stumbling efforts.
The real lesson is that beauty can be found in the most unexpected places, and ‘perfection’ is only one standard of value. Real beauty is always hidden right in front of us, and we often ignore it because it doesn’t wear the clothes of an ideal. It doesn’t always dress like a fashion model. It sometimes takes special keys to unlock this unusual beauty, but this just requires learning to find value that is not obvious or easy. If the world was populated only by Kens and Barbies or had only one easy standard of beauty, how interesting would that be? If we didn’t learn to see the beauty in more exotic and especially even in more ordinary places would we really understand the true value of beauty?
So on this Valentine’s Day lets celebrate the real diversity of beauty and all the treasured and overlooked haunts it lives in. Lets celebrate the familiar and the unusual and recognize that the world is more filled with beauty than we can ever imagine. It surrounds us. All we need to do is open our eyes and learn the secret song of our fellows and our world.
That sounds impossibly easy, but the beauty really is there. We just need to find it. And we need to renounce the expectation that it will look the way we expect or be ‘perfect’. Let our love be something that is not confined by idols of perfection or held up to unrealistic ideals. Let us love not despite our imperfections but even more because of them.
And let us remember that Picasso’s work is incredible, not because of where it came from, but for what it is. As are we all….
Happy Valentines day, all you lovely people!