Set the controls for the heart of the sun…..

Here’s a bit of Mythologic license to brighten your day….


This post is in memory of Prometheus, who stole fire to give to mankind…..

Michael Kaiser, the President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said this in a recent Huffington post article:

“The new (renewed?) focus on audience engagement appears to emerge from the sense that conventional arts organizations are losing their audiences to other forms of entertainment. Our audiences have the opportunity to be entertained at home on their personal computers and on television, to experience astonishing special effects at the movies, and to communicate with their friends non-stop via texting, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter.

“The sense of many is that things must change — our art must change, our approach to marketing must change and the nature of the audience experience must change. If we continue to operate in the same manner as we did in the twentieth century, the arts will die.

There is real fear that establishment Art forms may not survive long into the future on the shoulders of the current generation of supporters. The more that Art is seen as being in competition with ‘entertainment’ the worse off it will come. Somehow we have placed art in the position where we confuse it with entertainment. Which I suppose is easy enough to do if all the public knows about art is what it consumes, no different than any other form of passive entertainment…..

Of the many responses out there I thought this one by Richard Evans had the most interesting things to say:

“Studies based on the NEA’s 2008 SPPA indicate that three-quarters of U. S. citizens participate in the arts through attendance at events, personal creation and performance, or through electronic media. But only 35% do so through attendance at “benchmark” professional arts events. There is then a vast territory of opportunity awaiting us, a likely participant pool much larger than the old focus on ticket-buying audiences that has previously obsessed us and painted us into a corner of the country’s artistic life. This enormous disparity means that, in order to capitalize on the potential, we must fundamentally change our personal and organizational assumptions as well as our strategies.

“Organizations as disparate as the Los Angeles Music Center (through Active Arts), the Saint Louis Shakespeare Festival (through Shake38), and STREB (through the Teen Action Club) have all done this. They’ve learned that the commitment which leads to new income (both earned and contributed) can be stimulated – on a large scale and across age groups – but only if they hold back old assumptions about monetization (as well as about artistic production). Instead, they focus on increasing their footprints in their communities, and create direct, passionately felt experiences of artmaking and participation that build expressive lives rather than just expose product.

Let me repeat the idea behind that last bit: promoting creatively expressive lives rather than just unveiling art as but one more consumer good. Could it be that art isn’t there for us merely to be entertained by but as something for us to DO? In other words (and this is something I’ve been saying for a while now), is it just possible that we encourage an art interested community by keeping their own native curiosity alive? And that we nurture curiosity by keeping our community’s hand actively engaged in the creative role of imagination? The truth seems to be that we build more support for the arts by helping folks remember that they themselves are artists. We remind folks that they are not just consumers of other people’s creativity but are also capable initiators of creativity. We bring them the fire of Prometheus, not to watch others work with, but to play with themselves.

Well, that’s one opinion….

Unfortunately its an opinion that seems to scare some people. It may be of little surprise that the old guard of Establishment Art Professionals feels threatened by the wider focus on our universal native human creativity rather than the narrowly sanctioned products of professional artists. Treating the public as consumers puts the audience in their place and feeds them the Certified Art Objects that have been vetted by the gatekeepers. It keeps the public in line, puts them in their place on the bus, and it gives them no responsibility, authority, or creative input. “Let the professionals take care of it”, one might say…..

Here is Barry Hessenius, former Director of the California Arts Council, to provide a glimpse of this view:

“I wonder if – despite all the positive outcomes that our moving from being the ‘arts’ to being the ‘creative’ sector has brought, we may have blurred the lines too much and lost an exalted platform from which to operate. I wonder if creativity is an even more difficult argument in the long run, than the arts are.  I wonder if we are in danger of forsaking one of our greatest assets – the perception of art as ‘special’ and distinct and exalted – an enterprise with a legacy more fully developed in the public consciousness – for the less defined, less meaningful creativity hodgepodge.  I wonder if everyone is creative, then what distinguishes the artist.”


I’ll repeat that last foreboding filled sentence: “If everyone is creative, then what distinguishes the artist?” Heaven forfend we ever get to that point….(!)

The argument seems to be that it is dangerous to indiscriminately nurture people’s creativity. Like putting a loaded gun in an infant’s hands. Like putting the Mona Lisa up in Joe’s Roadside Tavern. We simply can’t trust ordinary people to do the right things with creativity. The public just can’t handle it. Things will get “muddy”. The natural order will be disturbed. Its the same argument the aristocracy had for the serfs. Its the reason Democracy disappoints us so much. Its the reason the gods kept fire out of our hands for so long….

For some folks out there it may simply be more important that some artists are treated as ‘special’ people, that certain Art be exalted, than that everyone should enjoy creative lives. Don’t let the unwashed masses feel they have a hand in creativity, for Art’s almighty sake! Strap them to their cushions while the High Priests, the REAL Artists, prance about on stage. Don’t we need professionals to show us what the ‘authentic art’ is? Pearls that may end up only getting cast before swine (or hoarded in the inner sanctum)? But the pearls are the important thing. Not the swine.

In some people’s minds it may be more important that we save some one particular threatened (yet somehow still ‘exalted’) Art form than that we indulge the wider public’s nascent creative abilities. We may even wonder how something posing as ‘exalted’ could be in the position of having so little currency with audiences. It may just come down to a choice between money spent propping up a failing industry and money spent building the wider public’s access to creativity in their own lives. Funding for the arts is so limited that we may be forced to sacrifice one to save the other. This is the fear that haunts the dark corners of the Ivory Tower, that we may decide to keep the wrong thing.

The keepers of The Orthodoxy might just consider it better to leave an audience passively entertained in their seats, and as creatively stunted and unenlightened consumers, than to invite them to take the stage (ANY stage) themselves. Keep them doped up on other people’s art. Put the fire back where it belongs. The High Priests have been trained to use it. The public will only end up getting burned. Its for their own good that the fire is taken out of the public’s hands.

And if that is true, it is obviously more important to reserve the right of creativity to an elite few than to dilute it among the peons. What the High Priests do is always more important than anything the untutored masses can come up with. It is almost certainly worth more to keep the plebs passively entertained and controlled than to let them be creatively or responsibly engaged. “Let US tell you what you need to know….”

That’s not my opinion….

And the funny thing I’ve noticed is that other creative types actually seem to be the most ardent supporters of the arts. The more connected they are to creativity… the more connected they are. They have the fire of Prometheus within them. They may not have the financial wherewithal that others have, but they already value the fruit of creative engagement. Potters buy pots, musicians groove on music, actors attend the theatre, etc. What could be more natural than that creativity inspires, nourishes, and supports other creativity?

Isn’t this the gift of fire? That it should be fueled and shared rather than hoarded in some priestly venue? Visited only during Temple store hours? Doesn’t fire naturally want to spread? Isn’t fire a gift to all humanity rather than to the chosen few…? Isn’t every child a natural vessel for creativity? Isn’t creativity what we all are owed, an inalienable human right, rather than something the adult public are spoon fed, and need to always pay the price of admission for? Isn’t creativity our own responsibility? Each of us?

Who does it serve that creativity is stripped from the general public’s abilities? Have the gods returned and stolen back the fire? Or their surrogates? Of course the fewer the people who have access to it the more it can be controlled. Like money in the bank. Like grain in the silo. And if we little people so thoroughly lack creative freedom in our daily lives, will we one day wake up and find out that not only are we missing creativity, but we are missing freedom as well? Think about it….

Did we possibly make a mistake when we gave it to the High Priests for safekeeping? Are we really so out of touch with the gift of creative responsibility that we now need a Prometheus to return and restore it to us? Will the flame wither, clutched in so few hands? Will the flame die out without the strength of the public to fuel it? Will the establishment’s greedy and selfish control of ‘exalted creativity’ eventually come back to bite it in the ass?

What do YOU think? How should art try to relate to people? As entertainment? As a sop? Or as something we ourselves are each capable of?


….set the controls for the heart of the sun…..

….the heart of the sun….

….the heart of the sun….

….the heart of the sun…………..





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.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Set the controls for the heart of the sun…..

  1. Pingback: Instructions on how to fight Pirates | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    I gather that you’re proposing a hypothetical dilemma here. Something along the lines of:

    If you had to cut arts funding for either: a) High Priest stuff (symphonies, art museums, NEA grants); or b) outreach and education (community programs, studio classes, field trips), which would you choose?

    I seem to only have more questions in reply, but one approach is to consider which would stand a better chance of surviving, even if just barely, on its own. An orchestra or an after school program? In dire straits, which is more likely to be rescued by private or corporate donations? Which is more able to restructure to new financial realities while maintaining a core of its former purpose?

    This seems like kind of a classical economics problem. Do you enhance supply or demand? Can one be the foundation for the other? Or should any cuts be made equally between them?

    I dunno.

  3. I’m not sure how hypothetical this is. At least, in the minds of others waging this war the lines seem to be drawn or are implicit.

    Of course I don’t want to lose either necessarily. There may be no easy solution. Possibly its something like the ethical dilemma posed in concentration camps where a mother gets to chose which of her children she gets to save. Or it may be something more like the difference between pruning branches to make the tree stronger, or fertilizing the roots to do the same. I don’t know….

    But the underlying issue I am quite clear on how I feel. I think it is a mistake that we have let society move in a direction where creativity is not a part of people’s daily lives, where passive entertainment is a stand in for actual responsibility in the world.

    So I guess my real point was that the High Priests may think it in their interest to keep the public in their seats, but is this really good for even their own interests in the long run? Won’t a creatively incapable audience eventually be so immune to the creativity of others that they form no real or lasting attachment to it? Isn’t that why arts audiences are increasingly less impressed? Isn’t that the kind of culture that allows pirates to roam freely?

    In the end, just what are the consequences for failing to nurture a people’s creativity?

    • Scott Cooper says:

      Yes, it’s a dilemma precisely because we want to keep both. (If we really didn’t care about funding a or b, problem solved!)

      So, in the hypothetical (or not) scenario above, you’d choose to cut option a, then? Or to strategically cut some of both?

      I agree with your real point, and my answer to your follow up question is no; it’s not even in the High Priests own interests to cut b. But the key there, I think, is the time factor — you said, “in the long run”. I’d bet that very few institutions are seriously thinking beyond the next five year plan, and most are lucky to see past this year’s budget. To be fair, when you’re basing for your next breath, it’s hard to care about your long term dental plan (right?)… but still. Public or non-profit institutions, by definition, should take the longer view. Screwing stuff up by focusing on the ridiculously short term is what corporations are for.

      • Indeed!

        That old chestnut of the difference between is and ought popping up again! I guess the best we can do is to keep it marginally in the periphery of our sight at least some of the time…..

        The interesting neuroscientific/psychological work being done in this area of human decision making is worth a good read. You may have caught the recent Jonah Lehrer blog post. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

        “Consider this scenario, pioneered by the great psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:

        The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?

        When this question was put to a large sample of physicians, 72 percent chose option A, the safe-and-sure strategy, and only 28 percent chose program B, the risky strategy. In other words, physicians would rather save a certain number of people for sure than risk the possibility that everyone might die. But what about this scenario:

        The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program C is adopted, 400 people will die. If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?

        When the scenario was described in terms of deaths instead of survivors, physicians reversed their previous decision. Only 22 percent voted for option C, while 78 percent of them opted for option D, the risky strategy.

        Of course, this is a ridiculous shift in preference. The two different questions examine identical dilemmas; saving one-third of the population is the same as losing two-thirds. And yet, doctors reacted very differently depending on how the question was framed. When the possible outcomes were stated in terms of deaths – this is the “loss frame” – physicians were suddenly eager to take chances. They were so determined to avoid any alternative associated with a loss that they were willing to risk losing everything”


        And then the REALLY INTERESTING bit comes when the skills of bilinguals are in play. I’ll let you read that bit on the original post, but it seems clear that having more than one frame of reference is a positive in being able to limit biases and ignore distraction, and that a person who has a handle on artistic expression fits this description quite well.

  4. Scott Cooper says:

    Oh, I think I see what you did there, Master Yoda. You took it and you turned it.

    So, if I’m following you, you’re suggesting that trying to define priorities by making it a simple “a or b” choice won’t work. Because, as in that example, if merely inverting the context of the question can cause experts to change their minds, then what’s the point of even asking it?

    “Try? There is no try.”


    • Maybe, sorta….

      Who knows what I had in mind!

      Thinking about it right now it seems that the point I may have been trying to make is that our decision making is so flawed and so constricted by biases that we jump to all sorts of easy conclusions without hesitation. It probably says more about our confidence to choose even the wrong answer than to have an open mind that is still weighing options. If how the same alternative being phrased differently impacts our decision making so powerfully, then it surely says more about how we weigh the phrasings than anything else.

      Its like we are given a sack of beans, and we are told to choose the best ones. If we can only make sense of them by how well we like the colors we will choose one way. If we can make sense of only the shapes we might choose another way. If we know what one kind of bean is like we might choose the familiar simply because that is what we know. If we have more experience of different kinds of beans we can make more educated choices. If we have specific recipes we can choose according to what we can do with them. Its only when we think in simple terms that things appear simple, and a mirage of confidence ensues. The more we know about the world, and the more we have investigated difference, the more we can see subtlety and nuance, and the less simple things become. Trying to make things simple at times only makes our heads simple.

      So the case I’m building is that we too often go into a decision with the righteous convictions of our biases and limitations. This only gives us a narrow range of expression and outcomes. Speaking more than one language automatically puts us in multiple frames of reference. And this is often an advantage. It makes sense to be able to see things from multiple perspectives. We need to be open to difference, to have that slight hesitation of translation, or the lens of views off center to the dominant biases.

      The high priests are so scared of losing the perks of their position at the top of the art food chain that all other alternatives that call it into question are automatically discarded, even if in the long term they might prove exactly what saves the orthodoxy. But they can’t see it because it looks a bit ominous. Sometimes you can’t see the forest for looking at the trees. Sometimes a phrasing in terms of deaths weighs more than the same option phrased in terms of survivors…..

      Who knows if any of that made sense! I sure can ramble on…..

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I’m trying to picture Master Yoda telling the parable of the sack of beans… “Things making simple is not; only heads simple become.”

        OK, so be honest: something like that is you repacking some top-shelf Philosophy biz for my remedial level of comprehension, right? There’s no way you’re just making up that whole thing about the beans on the spot — are you?

        • Hah!

          I have no earthly idea! Most of the things I think I am inventing I probably stole from somewhere else, and most of the things I think I’m repeating I have misremembered and redescribed in my own way. I guess I know these ‘truths’ best from personal experience of how unreliable my own confidence is. There is just so much that I don’t remember. Its like a continual surprise watching the things that come out of my keyboard. “Well whadda’ya know? Who would have thought that?” Sometimes as if some stranger is occupying my brain? In the absence of simpleminded confidence we are often our own greatest mystery…..

          Its strange going around seeing what we believe as the most obvious of truths, and then we forget what we thought, or change our minds, and something entirely different becomes the new truth, taking its place as the new most obvious of thoughts. And the ripple of inconsistency is like that cat walking the same steps twice in the Matrix. Unless we notice the difference we just glide on as if nothing has changed….

          If “seeing is believing” it just makes sense to recognize or imagine that other people see things differently and that our confidence is sometimes more about how we act in the world than about some reality behind the world itself. ( I think I just made that up….)

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Looks like I made you self-conscious with all that Yoda business, so now you’re channeling Jar Jar: “Meesa no know wherea these’um good ideas come from!”

        Even so, and as convincing as you are at it, I’m still not buying your “I Am Not So Smart” routine. It’s the spoon that isn’t there.

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