Imagination and the virtues of self deception and casual disregard

Ben Carter just had another fine post on his blog and a great video where he describes his process and the reasons behind working the way he does. Tucked inside all that pottery goodness is a question he throws out to the audience on how we see the benefits of cross disciplinary learning. I took the question to bring into focus just how related art practice is to how we conduct ourselves in general. In other words, its all related, and making art isn’t something separate from the rest of our lives as much as maybe being a special case of what we normally do. This is how I responded:

“And yes, I agree. Cross disciplinary learning is crucial to getting a handle on some things. The application of confidence and working without hesitation (that you state in your video) is always a factor in the more gestural approach in the arts and life in general. In fact, confidence is so important I would even say that sometimes you should act as if you were confident in order to learn what confidence feels like and where it can lead. Sometimes it can be important to trick ourselves by giving the appearance of confidence to actually find confidence. In other words, we can put ourselves in the position of being confident by pretending to be confident.

“Confidence is not just a symptom of understanding and competence, but also an attitude in how we approach things. And so its a bit of chicken and egg, perhaps: Competence leading to confidence and confidence leading to competence. Just think of what its like outside that circle. Panic and a lack of confidence can kill competence as surely as not having competence in the first place. Confidence can be the grace that allows for our growing competence, and not just the result of its support”


At that point I realized that I was about to start another of my infamous rambles, so I deleted my response on his blog and resolved to explore the issue a bit further on my own.

I guess I’ve always been an easily deluded and gullible romantic, willing to see the best or the potential for good before closing my mind to it. I’m an inveterate chaser of soap bubbles and clouds, a daydreamer and willing escapist. In other words, I tend to use my imagination a lot. So maybe I’m also in a position to see where imagination is also a productive guide and not just an escape into fantasy (See this Jonah Lehrer article for a great discussion on the importance of ‘mind-wandering’). And as artists, most of us are intimately familiar with taking the known as a starting point and then recasting it to things that were never the case before. With our imagination we remake the world to something new, and we do it all the time. (See this great Chuck Wendig post on the nature of creativity. I don’t agree with everything he says, but his insight, humor, and irreverence are about as good as it gets!)

Unfortunately our culture doesn’t always put much importance on imagination. Kids are told to quit daydreaming and put their noses in their books. Doodles and digressions are stamped out for the anti authoritarian rebellion it is. Even the mind expanding literature of fiction is given to us as cold hard objects that kids need to dissect and analyze in their book reports. We are given even the most glorious fiction as a fact, and rather than an open portal to mystery and imagination we are told to memorize lines and treat even the wildly absurd as if it were only recounting an alternate type of history. We end up treating fiction as some sort of parallel documentation of alternative fact rather than the illuminating expanse of imaginative possibility it really is.

So imagination these days gets a bad rap. But our clinical disavowal doesn’t stop it from playing a role in our everyday lives. And it goes deeper than simply the obvious creative practices of the arts and everyday problem solving. What imagination can do for us is akin to the suspension of disbelief that we take with us to the movies. We can put ourselves in positions we have no other claim to but our imaginations.

What I was talking about in the example of confidence is a primary case. Perhaps self deception is putting it a bit strongly, but the point is that its sometimes important to BELIEVE in things that are obviously not the case. Sometimes for peace of mind but also sometimes because it opens new doors. Without belief you don’t get to see things from this very different perspective. Its not just that if you believe in fairies you get to see them lurking behind trees in the forest, but if you believe things about yourself you get to see yourself in that light. If you imagine confidence you end up embodying confidence. If you believe that there is a chance for hope you keep that hope alive. Its not rational, and its not factual. Its not some natural law of causation, but the power of an attitude. Its an open door. It becomes a question of seeing potentials.

On the flip side, negative beliefs are also an obvious instance of how influential our imagination can be. We believe we can’t do something and so we fail before we even start. We believe we are not good enough and so we damage whatever goodness we have. Nurturing our imagination in positive directions is not just the stance of daydreaming rather than hard work, its the possibility for each and every one of us to find the best within ourselves that is possible. Without believing in ourselves we simply lose the fight before it has even begun.

And so, cultivating a certain amount of self deception can be a virtue. Sure we all make mistakes, but we are not defined by them. We can still put ourselves in positions where we are or will someday be better than that. We can outlive the fact of what we’ve done in the future that can still be. Its still an open door if we but let it be open. Imagination is only that window, a window of opportunity.

So on to the virtues of casual disregard. Sometimes we hold onto things too tightly. We acknowledge that this certain thing is what we’ve got and we give it claim over us. We box ourselves in by granting extravagant importance to the things we hold, and we ignore the potential that these same hands can hold other things as well. We define ourselves not by what we can be, but by what we are now. We regard our present selves with the fervour of conviction about some inalterable truth.

But, as I’ve tried to make the case before, we are almost always at least partly in flux. Its like a student’s first year in college. All the rules have changed and you are now on unfamiliar territory. You possibly don’t do nearly as well as you thought you might. But rather than clinging to this new impression of ourselves we need to ignore it. We need to casually disregard the fact of where we are at, and see this not as a constraint but a challenge. After all, it is only the first step in a path that potentially leads far into the distance. (I can’t find the article I recently read that details a study on this, but it was shown that freshman students who were told that their beginning semester always sets the bar low usually end up doing much better than the students that were not told this. The point being that these future achievers can imagine their college careers turning out better, and so they work toward it. I wish I could find that link…..)

And so, since I tend to think of many of these issues in terms of how students grapple with their experiences of learning, I would say that its also the case that beginners are sometimes better served by keeping an open mind than prejudging things or settling for their meagre store of insight. They may know what they know, but this is only ever a partial view, and the incompleteness is hardly an advantage. What else is the point of learning if we stop at the first safe perch?

Instead, my opinion is that beginners should cultivate an openness to different perspectives and a casual disregard for what they think they know. (I once threw this out to a student as “Don’t judge your pots until you are qualified to judge them”. The point being that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.) Rather than clinging to their present understanding as if it were the only lifeline separating them from the abyss, they need to take the chance that there is more. They need to loosen their grip. They need to step away from the tiny security of their knowledge and cast themselves adrift into the great unknown. If what they know is only a foundation it can’t be the entire possible foundation, nor necessarily the most stable to build on. But it takes the freedom of imagination to discover this and to discover alternative and complementary foundations.

Harvesting sustenance from a beginner’s knowledge would be like trying to grow a crop from merely the clay in the soil. Without the admixture of organic materials and water you shouldn’t expect much. To foster any new growth it takes a complex of ingredients, and nurturing over the long haul. It takes the change of season, the rhythm of night and day, and the community of insect life and beneficial bacteria to sustain an appropriate environment. To grow the crop healthy and to prepare for bountiful harvest depends on more than simply good seeds and a handful of miracle grow.

But too often we want it all now, regardless of the position we are in. We so want the magic pill, the easy solution, the silver bullet, and we pretend that there is sufficiency in our present limited scope. We invest in the security of the bird in hand rather than the future of the two in the bush. Its a weird combination of conservatism and gluttony. We are so focused on the now that our view is hopelessly short sighted. And we gobble the world from within that lens as if we had no choice. But not seeing other choices is a failure of imagination. And we fail the future when we fail to imagine it being better than it is.

And so what if what we can ‘see’ is only what we do see? As if ‘reality’ is our only measure of worth…. If we allow only fact to dictate our perceptions and can’t imagine it being any different we… well, we can’t imagine it being any different. But that’s why we have imagination. We have imagination so that we are able to more easily loosen ourselves from the bonds of facts about the world and aspire to what the would can and possibly should be. And if it takes some judicious self deception and casual disregard to get us there, then so be it.

At least, that’s how I take 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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3 Responses to Imagination and the virtues of self deception and casual disregard

  1. More evidence that what is true for art is also often true for other spheres of activity. This from the one sports blog I follow (My favorite soccer club being Arsenal):

    ” The lads have shown a lot of spirit. You have to get a bit of the rub of the green, but that tends to come when you start being bolder on the pitch. Gamble on your skill, gamble in the box, gamble in thinking: ‘I am going to try this’. Start gambling your talent, basically.

    “The more you bust a gut to win, the more you are going to see the crowd feed off that. You make your own luck, and against Newcastle there was a little deflection for the winning goal and the ball came to Vermaelen, but he was there because he busted a gut to get into the box.”

    “It is now about confidence, belief, trust. If the players are confident enough to believe in themselves then I trust them to deliver third place.”

    Isn’t it interesting how this lesson about confidence pervades our lives? That we can sometimes manufacture our disposition as well as inflict it on ourselves? That we are not merely the passive victim of our state of mind but actually often know very well how to construct it?

    Shouldn’t we be talking about this more openly?

  2. Ben Carter says:

    I some how totally missed this post. Thanks for picking up the line about confidence in the video and running with it. You brought up some great points.

    One especially that I like is “We invest in the security of the bird in hand rather than the future of the two in the bush. Its a weird combination of conservatism and gluttony. We are so focused on the now that our view is hopelessly short sighted. And we gobble the world from within that lens as if we had no choice. But not seeing other choices is a failure of imagination. And we fail the future when we fail to imagine it being better than it is.”

    I was just thinking about this today. i made 3 big jars and asked myself should I go with the same surface design as the last making cycle or should I go with 3 totally new surface designs. I often find myself repeating old designs with confidence but not with vision and possibility. I have to let go of what I know works to find the next new thing that works. It is so easy to rest on the design that worked last time. Hell it even makes sound business sense but it doesn’t open my mind or feed my creativity. If I dont take the leap to try something new I don’t encourage my imagination.
    I find that I must keep a vision of where I want my pots to go even if I don’t know exactly what that vision looks like. I keep the desire to progress and to take a step forward in the front on my mind but I don’t have concrete ideas of what that will physically manifest as in the studio.

    So after writing this I think I will decorate one like the old pattern and try two new designs. This points to the numbers game that I play in my head. If I have 20 cups I will often do 15 new designs (3/4’s of the forms are spent on experimentation) but if I only do 10 cups I will only try five new designs (1/2 of the forms spent on experimentation). Its like I have a magic number of safe pots that I must fulfill before I get to experiment.

    As always your posts get me thinking. Hope you are doing well.

    • Thanks Ben!

      Always love to hear your thoughts! So true what you say about the tension of playing it safe and experimenting. The struggle to keep ourselves freely innovating has a huge obstacle in the siren song of security. Perhaps the best we can do is keep honest and openminded about it, pick our battles when we can, and not simply cave in to the external pressures of a marketplace demanding consistency…..

      I’ve had a lot of fun reading of your travels! You are an adventurous spirit in life as well as clay. Its great to see! And thanks for being so generous in sharing your journey. Learning from other people’s experiences is a truly important exercise of our imagination. Thanks for the inspiration!

      Hope all is well in your corner (wherever that may be just now!),


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