Valentine’s Day special: The Curse of Pablo Picasso

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!

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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10 Responses to Valentine’s Day special: The Curse of Pablo Picasso

  1. john bauman says:

    I enjoy reading your thoughts. They often take me in a direction I hadn’t taken. Or, if I had taken that direction at some point in the past, maybe I didn’t see the same things you did on the journey.

    I agree and disagree with your thesis.

    I agree because I think that the simple exploration in creative endeavors is quite often its own reward. And like the proverbial monkey with the typewriter, it’s surprising how often those endeavors resemble Shakespeare.

    And, truth be told, I accept some of the value of this “creativity with no rules” on faith. I do so because — and I’m quick to admit this — I don’t “get” much of the art world. Since others do (“get” the art world), though their rationale often appears to ol’ skeptical (cynical?) me as emperor’s new clothes, I have to acquiesce to the probability that there is some sort of “there” there.

    But I disagree too.

    First, I wasted so many years of my own odyssey in clay essentially re-inventing the wheel. And not very satisfactorily, I might add. It was rationalization at best that led me down that path of “good enough (to sell) (for a beginner) (for a MIdwesterner with delusions of mediocrity)”

    But the honest me went to the art fairs and saw the other pottery there and knew where I REALLY fit in the world of clay. It’s wasn’t a particularly enjoyable self-evaluation. But it drove me toward a more rational approach to actually learning how to express myself in clay.

    See, I believe that it is possible to communicate in clay. I think there are certain ways that, while maybe not as exact as “science”, are none-the-less concrete. And those concrete ways can and should be learned. If one wishes to communicate with clay — make one’s expressions deliberate rather than accidental — it can be practiced.

    Of course, one caveat built into my previous paragraph is the obvious observation that, since we all live with ceramic objects, many of those concrete elements of communication are already part of our unconscious general knowledge. We live with, and use pots daily. So nobody REALLY starts from the ground floor when taking up ceramics. But I think it still requires some direction (if we desire efficiency in the learning process) or keen observation of what’s gone before (if we insist on staying on the DIY treadmill) if we really want to progress in the ability to make good pots. ESPECIALLY if the goal is to make CONSISTENTLY good pots.

    I’ve heard the Picasso gambit too. Many times. I don’t care for it either, but in my case it’s mostly because it highlights my personal blind spot. That is: I don’t really get Picasso anyway. His work — early OR late — doesn’t move me. This lack of “getting it” has always made me feel deficient and insecure as I make my living fairly close to the art world. But try as I might, I can’t get the communication that others claim to be deriving from much of the art world. Hence my first paragraphs wherein I admit that your thesis may have merit, and accidental work MIGHT be of value.

    But I would counter with an example that I really DO believe emphasizes the situation more accurately:


    I’m a wanna be guitar/mandolin player. There is no musical instrument that I can think of that a person can endeavor to play without being taught how. Can music making be enjoyed on MANY levels from beginning amateur to practiced professional? Yes. Is really good music played at all those levels. Maybe. But probably not. Certainly not as measured by some objective scale.

    Yes, the arts will always have a subjective element. That subjectivity certainly favors your thesis over my objection. But I really think (as a person who’s been both a student and a practitioner) that in your apparent hopes of doing exactly the opposite — that is — in your goal of lending hope to your students — your thesis leads to more frustration than success.

    Show me how and I’ll decide what. That’s more efficient. Probably more satisfying too.

    Or not.

    • Ahoy John!

      Thank you for that compliment! Knowing you are out there reading my ramblings always makes my day!

      I would have to say that I agree with every point you make. Its only my failure to adequately make my case that seems so awkward. The points you list about improving are spot on, and especially the rigour that is demanded at the level of professionals. Consistently good pots need a bit more than simple satisfaction with what you are doing at the time. All of this is true.

      I guess where my post went astray was in not clarifying the issue I was most concerned with. Essentially I was concerned with the frustration that beginners can have when they set their sights on unrealistic goals. I have seen a number of students with real ability and real potential turn aside from clay because they could not find the positives in what they were making. If it wasn’t dead on perfect it became a total loss. And even one bad day sometimes was enough to discourage them and even make them quit. That’s a sad story and an unnecessary ending…..

      So I guess all that I was really trying to advocate is that in the course of improving we should still be aware of the things that are good. We should not only be driven by the negatives of not measuring up, but we should see that there is also room for positives that maybe are not a part of our normal way of looking at things. I’m not advocating ‘anything goes’. But neither am I saying that experimentation hurts. What I’m trying to promote is that there are more than one way of seeing things, and that educating our eyes requires not only focus but breadth. Sophisticated seeing doesn’t mean only knowing one standard, no matter how good or pragmatic it is.

      And the truth is that even as professionals we have to rely on what our audience sees, and they almost never see exactly what we do. They may even like things about our pots that we are not as keen on. And amazingly if they like what we do they can still also like the different things that other potters do. Its not all or nothing. And it would be impossible for a single pot to contain all the diverse things that makes a pot good. That’s like saying that a curve is always better than a straight line. So of course sometimes our fans will like some of what we do but not everything. And what this has to mean is that there is never only one way of looking at things. In some important sense we are never the best judge of our work. We are not its kindest supporter and we are not its harshest critic. We are certainly not the only judge. So doesn’t it make sense, especially as beginners, to be open minded and inquisitive?

      What you say about music also has a strong amount of truth to it. The conventions wrapped around instruments and the long traditions of music can make it seem pretty straight forward. If the goal is to play such and such a tune, well of course you may have to learn it in a certain way. What else is tradition good for if it doesn’t teach us these things? But interestingly it is just as easy to break the ‘rules’ in music as it is in any other practice. I can just picture Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar ‘upside down’, and grinding it into the amplifiers. When all you do is acoustic, when all you play is a specific genre, the rules can seem almost absolute. Of course they do. But jack into some speakers, add a little reverb, feedback, and what have you got? (I’ll always think Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock was a bit of incomprehensible guitar insanity, but there you have it….)

      If there was only one right way of playing instruments or composing would we have ever gotten John Coltrane? Charles Mingus? Igor stravinsky? The Beatles? And isn’t it interesting when music crosses cultures and we get fusions and blends of instruments and ways of playing them?

      So I guess my real point is that if the standards of real professionals seem so flexible, how can we hold only some of them up as the ideal practitioners? If Ron Meyers can throw loose pots, why can’t we? If the Korean folk potter who made the Kizaemon teabowl could throw unhindered by the rules of perfection, why can’t we also? Of course we are prejudiced to see things in the certain light of our own convictions, but its hard to make the case that our way is the only way. Show me the rule book and I will perhaps change my mind. And if someone with a different way of doing it shows me their rule book? Maybe I’ll change my mind again.

      The world is so full of possibility that it seems a shame to only settle for so few things. But refinement and simplicity is a choice, and sometimes it is a good choice. I fully agree with that. Its just not the only choice. And, it doesn’t seem to be a necessary choice either….

      Thanks as always for the great comment! I always appreciate your thoughtful answers.

  2. Zygote says:

    Picasso didn’t rely on perfection. Far from it… From what I’ve gathered over the years, he trusted his own sense of personal aesthetics and was confident enough with his ability to play unbounded.
    That’s the lesson to us all…(although I like what both you and John wrote much, much more)

    • Amen, Joel!

      I was totally blown away by that video you posted! What an absolute revelation about creative decision making! He wasn’t just aiming at one absolute result, but was experimenting and testing ideas along the way. That is about the most intriguing (I almost said “perfect”. Oops!) demonstration of artistic process that I have encountered!

      Yeah, the bit about his reliance on ‘perfection’ was definitely not related to his later work. What I was referring to is the formative period of his childhood when he mastered realism. That is what these students always seem to hold up as the model of how they should proceed.

      Thanks for chiming in, and thanks for sharing that video!

  3. I just saw this great quote on Bridget Fairbank’s blog, interestingly enough from a musician, Dan Mangan:

    “I believe creative people act like sponges – they ingest everything around them all the time and debate, dissect, contemplate, analyze and then figure out exactly how and why it makes them tick. I know this for myself, at least. Every now and then, the sponge gets wrung out, and all their “takes” on all of this data they’ve absorbed get regurgitated back into the world.I try to always have something on the go, even if it’s not much. I also try not to freak out in dryer times. I try to trust that in time, more will come. I try to listen to the world. I try to be open to new ideas about the world. I try to not assume that I’m right. I try to continue to surround myself with interesting experiences, which will, in turn, spur on new creative ideas. I try to listen to good music, watch good films, read good books and go see some theatre or visual art as often as possible.

    Whatever art one is making is everything they’ve accumulated to at that moment – it is important at that moment, and if it’s truly insightful, it will be important for a long time.

    The death of a good artist is assuming that they’ve figured it out, or that they’re as good as it gets. I believe that the maintenance of a good artist is assuming they know very little – to continually reinvest in their hunger to grow, evolve and improve in their ability to understand the world.”

    It was first posted in this music blog:

  4. Kevin Carter says:

    “The death of a good artist is assuming that they’ve figured it out, or that they’re as good as it gets. I believe that the maintenance of a good artist is assuming they know very little – to continually reinvest in their hunger to grow, evolve and improve in their ability to understand the world.”

    This quote reminds me of an anecdote of which I am fond to relate to all who will listen; it involves the cellist Pablo Casals.
    At the age of ninety-four, Casals was still practising his cello six hours a day. At ninety-four, Casals could also look back on a career in which he had done it all- he had recorded many , many albums with the world’s top orchestras and accompanyists, played concerts around the world for kings, queens, and US Presidents, and been on numerous radio and TV programs. Surely there could be no stone left unturned, nothing more do be done.
    When someone asked him why, at the age of ninety-four, he was still practising his cello six hours a day, Casals replied “I think I’m finally making progress.”
    It really never ends, to the true seeker.

    • Amen Kevin!

      That was a great story! Thanks as always for sharing! Hard to top an example like that!

      I guess what I am often concerned about as an instructor and an artist both is that we get into the orthodoxy of imagining there is only one right way to do things. Or rather, that we have to aim at something specific. I think especially in teaching it is important to nurture the idiosyncratic good things that each student brings to their work. If what is important is the evolution of each individual to their own unique potential, then the less we hem them in with false prescriptions and the idolatry of rules the better.

      The great thing about creativity is that it invents. It bends, breaks, or simply ignores ‘rules’ because creativity is an active generation of what counts. And of course there is still plenty of room for playing a conservative hand, but its a mistake to say this is the only foundation upon which new things can be built.

      So teaching beginners seems like the opportunity to investigate what works best for each person involved. How can they make it work, with their own unique blend of history, ability, strength, and inclination? No two people are the same and no two sets of hands the same either. No two ways of looking at the world match up exactly, but we pretend there are the same rules for everyone, that the same procedure will be appropriate for every possible practitioner.

      Of course there are good bits of advice and helpful hints, but its hard to make them fit as blanket statements. “Thou shalt…..” and so forth. At most what an instructor can do is help put a student in a position to figure things out. Understanding isn’t always simply understanding it the way the instructor does. Especially not considering the gulf in experience. Each student has to come to terms with what they are doing in their own way. And we don’t all start out in exactly the same spot with the same handicaps and benefits. Teaching is a puzzle, and it is a different challenge for each student.

      And its important to acknowledge the purity and value of the unique starting point that each beginner has. We don’t suddenly sprout into fully formed potters like Athena from the head of Zeus. Rather, we evolve. And we each evolve from somewhere all our own. If you already have a rule in place then you are not looking at that student as an individual. You can suggest things, offer advice, but its still up to the student to make it work for themselves. It isn’t the same as constructing a consistent model off the assembly line. The students we help educate are not the homogeneous product of set schematics and diagrams. Each new student is a prototype. Each new student has a path to trace that has never been taken before. Its a path that starts with themselves, includes a bit from this instructor and a bit from that, and ends with what they do with this information.

      But the end is not a termination unless they quit. As long as they stay with it and continue to grow the end will be evolving right along with them. And it seems that someone as good and with as much experience as Pablo Casals would likely have hit on ‘the right way of doing things’ if such a thing existed. But no. At Ninety four he was still toiling away, still focused on improvement, still working to get better. Its also the difference between artists that practice their art and artists who only perform it. And if you admit that practice still counts even with the kind of background Casals had, then it doesn’t seem so far fetched that there is no end point to what we are doing, or a singular correct way of doing it. There is no stopping point of getting it right once and for all.

      If all you are doing is maintaining a groove, then sure, it ends there. For you. But not out of necessity. And why foist this determinism on someone else? Why especially would you foist it on beginners? Why cut short the budding talent before it has even had the chance to blossom? Why hack it down before it has the chance to tell us what kind of flower it will be? As if it had to be this one kind of plant at best and a weed at worst. Why tell it what to do before it even knows what it is itself?

      Teaching can be like acting as a gardener for our collection of students. We prune to help the growth and health of the plants we are tending. We fertilise and water as necessary. Each plant according to its needs. We don’t crop dust a garden with some ornamental shrubs, some nut trees, a few grape vines, root crops and a host of different varieties of seedlings. And we don’t take a lawn mower to every plant. Teaching is never a ‘one size fits all’ proposition. Or it seems it shouldn’t be…..

  5. Another great offering from the inimitable Chuck Wendig today on his post “25 Things I Want To Say To So Called Aspiring Writers”:

    4. We All Booby-Trap The Jungle Behind Us

    There exists no one way toward becoming a professional writer. You cannot perfectly walk another’s journey. That’s why writing advice is just that — it’s advice. It’s mere suggestion. Might work. Might not. Lots of good ideas out there, but none of it is gospel. One person will tell you this is the path. Another will point the other way and say that is the path. They’re both right for themselves, and they’re both probably wrong for you. We all chart our own course and burn the map afterward. It’s just how it is. If you want to find the way forward, then stop looking for maps and start walking.

    5. The Golden Perfect Path Of The Scrivening Bodhisattvas

    Point is, fuck the One True Way. Doesn’t exist. Nobody has answers — all you get are suggestions. Anybody who tells you they have The Answer is gassy with lies. Distrust such certainty and play the role of skeptic.

  6. Pingback: “The creative virtues of grogginess” and “The creative upside of brain damage” | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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