How vulnerability saves the world

I just read a wonderful post over at ARTSblog that examined the role of suffering in great art. You know, that myth where it is only through great tragedy and personal misery that exemplary art gets born. The author of this post proposes a slight twist to that old saw. Its well worth reading. Check it out here.

Anyway, in my typical and tired presumption that I might have something interesting to say about someone else’ blog topic I left yet another of my highfalutin internet rambles. Here’s what I had to say:

These are great ideas to explore. Thank you so much for sharing them!

I think you are 100% correct that vulnerability lies at the center of both our humanity and our capacity for art. I wouldn’t say just great art, but I’d say all art. And I wouldn’t limit vulnerability to the the sad part of the human condition. Vulnerability means openness. It means having the capacity to be affected. And so while we might point out the suffering that Zara implicates in his examples of ‘great’ art, it is also this underlying foundation at the core of our being that proclaims we are not done yet, that we have not learned all there is to learn, and that we have not experienced all there is to be experienced.

And so I would say that our vulnerability is the hallmark of our incompleteness, that we can still be affected by the world. And its so much more than simply suffering. We are vulnerable to beauty and to humor. We are vulnerable to ecstatic moments of joy and to moments of pure selflessness. It is our testament to being alive.

So yes, it seems that any art worth the name will have its teeth in a moment or two of vulnerability. It will have roots sunk deep in the well from which we experience the world. And what leads this universal human capacity to creative expression is that it tangles with our imagination. In the cauldron that is the creative soul, our vulnerability finds its cosmic reagent in the fertility of our dreams. And a strange alchemy is born. And we are gifted with art. And we may not even be aware of where it came from, but it is powerful and it is true.

And perhaps it is this openness that we need to encourage more. Perhaps there is a lack of curiosity, a satisfaction and self satisfaction that stunts our creative exploration. Just maybe we are not vulnerable enough. Perhaps it is through encouraging more people to do more with their own creativity that we best reaffirm the value of our vulnerability. Perhaps it is by reminding ourselves that everyone at heart is an artist, that this is our natural birthright, perhaps it is by doing this more consistently in our lives and encouraging it more pervasively in the lives of others, that we build a society that is more sensitive to strange beauty, that is more open to wonder and to the surprise serendipity of our unfolding world. The more we are incurious the less we are vulnerable to the world. And that seems like an awfully important thing to realize…..

Thanks again for your great post. These ARE things worth thinking about.

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, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to How vulnerability saves the world

  1. zygote says:

    This has been a private topic of conversation in our studio for the past 8 months. It started with the idea that happiness and contentment can adversely affect how you work.
    (Full bellies won’t be compelled to work with as much enthusiasm as hungry ones. Figuratively and literally, Ya gotta stay hungry.)
    But the discussion has grown past that idea. Now it’s about how do we infuse meaning into functional work. Something beyond simply pretty, it’s about how we take on the human condition and for better or worse, suffer the human experience.
    The self-inflicted dilemma of “a pot is just a pot” is mitigated once the discussion is put into play. Form is just a canvas for the soul.

    • Carter says:

      Aaron Sober just posted a deeply personal meditation on Artists, pain, health, healthcare, and the passage of the new healthcare laws. Read it here:

      This is the introductory quote he starts the post with: “The continuing human need for first person narratives of illness seems to be this: they offer a language – terms of representation – in which disease, pain, and the often surreal impositions of treatment can be reflected upon, integrated into the life of the sufferer, and shared with others. Or, if suffering cannot be integrated into a life, narration allows the experience to be held apart as part of one’s life and self. On a primary level, illness narratives are reports; that might be called their ethnographic value. On a moral level they are acts of witness, telling truths that are too often silenced because they speak of what any sane person would rather ignore among life’s possible outcomes.”

      -Arthur W. Frank, from Metaphors of Pain

    • Carter says:

      Hey Joel! That seems like a great conversation to have been a part of!

      I don’t know where all you took it, but what I might add (perhaps as a congenial devil’s advocate) is that, sure, hunger CAN be used to propel us forward, but is is necessary? Are there not as many paths to being an artist as there are people making art? Are we not simply glorifying one possible resource for what we do by putting things like hunger (or suffering in the case of the post above) on a pedestal? Contentment CAN adversely affect us. If we let it. But does that mean we can only make art in its absence?

      Personally I’d say no, but I am more in agreement with you than I am not. I think contentment IS a dangerous condition, if only that it lulls us and allows us to settle for less. And that was mostly what I was after in making the point above about incompleteness. But the truth is that contentment is such a secure sounding word when it really only describes imperfect and vague realities. Its not a condition that has permanent duration and it is not a condition that speaks for all facets of our lives. In other words, being content can last a few seconds and it can apply to only a few parts of who we are. So how is it possible to make such a broad proclamation against “contentment”? We are never completely content, which logically must mean that we are always at least partially uncontented and even discontented. If it only means you had a disagreeable meal for lunch, isn’t that sometimes enough discontent to spur us forward?

      The meaning of functional work is also another kettle of fish. Unfortunately it seems like the contemporary art prejudice against mere beauty infects even potters. And it is our desire to fit in this art world that stakes its one claim for relevance on ‘meaning’ that we disown beauty. Let me just remind you that beauty was a part of art long before we became fixated on ‘conceptual content’. But if we listen to the contingent and historically accidental prescriptions of the art establishment, then we might decide to throw our lot in with the meaning mongers and deny our human birthright to things of beauty. I’d like for potters at the very least to stand up for beauty, to defend it against the shallow commercial concerns of a gallery industry that dictates what things count as art. There has to be more to art than simply what they can sell best. Do we want to be defined by the interests of some business person’s wallet? Is that all we are doing?

      But yes, form IS a canvass for the soul, only the soul is our connection to things like beauty. ‘Meaning’ seems to happen from the shoulders up. Don’t we want our pots to be seen as beautiful? Isn’t beauty something worth bringing to the world? Doesn’t the world deserve to be more beautiful? Is this not an honorable and important mission for artists to pursue? Academics might argue differently, but then academics seem to have a problem with pots fitting in their ivory tower too. Aren’t we simply sleeping with the enemy, in a sense, when we give up our claim to beauty?

      I’d love to hear more of your discussions on this, and I invite you to ask Jessica and the others to express their ideas here as well. It seems like an important conversation to have.

      • Carter says:

        I just had one more dubious brainstorm: Isn’t our trading out the importance of beauty for the industrial charms of meaning itself a case of our choosing to play be the rules, being content to do what we are told and to think what we are told to think? Isn’t it in fact precisely the kind of contentment that we just argued holds artists back? Letting the art industry tell us that meaning is superior to beauty, that without meaning “a pot is just a pot”, aren’t we simply buying into a world view that wasn’t even designed to appreciate pots? Is that ever going to be a fair treatment of pots? Isn’t warning against contentment and then buying into a prevailing prejudice a case wanting to have it both ways, of having our cake and wanting to eat it too? But maybe thats just the irrevocably inconsistent nature of being human….

        Don’t we at least sometimes need to hold onto the intrinsic values displayed by and embodied in pottery? Not that this necessarily means we are settling for a different form of contentment (it CAN be that, after all), but that we are choosing where to stand despite the pressures on us. Isn’t it something like standing up for ourselves when we are continually being told to sit at the back of the bus? Isn’t the whole issue of contentment just another way of saying that there is a difference between the way the world is and the way that it should be? And that every time we stand up for a cause, not mindlessly flogging some propaganda, we are doing something authentic? Isn’t that the real test?

        So in the end, while I’d also say that the contemporary view of art has its appeal, it simply does not speak for all of what art is or what it potentially can be. And trying to shoehorn pots and other nonconformist art into the accepted paradigm is as mindlessly incoherent as saying there is only one right way to appreciate the world. So “yes” meaning, but also “yes” beauty.

        Any thoughts?

  2. Dawn says:

    Hi Carter, enjoyed reading your post, reminds me of a talk I’ve watched parts of on YouTube Brene Browns Ted Talk @ the Power of Vulnerability….not specific to Art but more speaking to the capacity for openness here’s the link if you’d like to take a look

    • Carter says:

      That’s a good one Dawn! I saw it a bunch of months ago, checked it out again when you linked to it, but I feel I need another viewing or so before I can offer any substantial thoughts. I’m workin’ on it! Thanks for reminding me, though!

  3. zygote says:

    I see that all too many ceramic artists don’t choose where to stand, they want to stand where they are told to stand. Beauty is intrinsically subjective. We have to learn shape our world to our ideals, but first we must have ideals.

    • Carter says:

      Agreed about choice and what most end up doing with it.

      The idea of ‘subjectivity’ needs a bit of examination, though. It usually gets used as a contrast with ‘objective’ where one is accidental and contingent and the other is firm and universal, the reality that stands behind subjectivity. But the worse association we make is that ‘subjective’ things are therefor only in our heads and that they thereby lack any independent reality. We often take that to mean that ‘subjective’ is therefor ‘untrue’. We take it to mean that something which is personal or open only from a particular point of view has less value than things which are agreed upon in a community’s objective conformity.

      We can’t see another person’s pain. Pain is subjective. But does that make it unreal? Does something that appears only in the ‘eye of the beholder’ discredit it? If that is the case, then imagination is by definition a lost cause, and our dreams but the worst sort of flagrant opinion. Dreams are not even subjective experience. They’re just made up flights of fancy. Are we willing to go so far as to say that anything ‘tainted’ by subjectivity is not worth our time?

      What I would argue is that agreement isn’t always the test of a thing’s worth. (Isn’t that precisely what we were just saying about being told where to stand?) Its not THAT we agree that is important as much as why we agree and what we are agreeing about. The moment we start throwing around accusations of ‘subjectivity’ we need to ask ourselves just how many of our sacred cows are left if we truly measure them against universal objectivity. ‘Subjectivity’ sometimes just looks like an excuse to dismiss things we ourselves don’t agree with. It sometimes looks like another reason to stand with the accepted way of looking at things rather than deciding for ourselves. And as artists that surely can’t be our mission. Shouldn’t we instead be celebrating our subjectivity, our diversity, our unique points of view?

      So subjectivity may not end up being the worst thing in the world. And I’d also ask whether “meaning” and “conceptual content” were in truth any less subjective than beauty. Isn’t the meaning we understand kind of precariously balanced on our own subjective interpretation? Is this any less personal than our grasp of beauty? The fact that any of us ever disagree surely must mean that universal objectivity is as much an unrealized phantasm as anything else. Isn’t that an interesting conclusion? Isn’t it perhaps that we’ve built up an expression which seems to talk about the world but actually never really describes it that well at all? At least the way we mean it to? Isn’t that just the ‘flawed’ nature of our being human and using human language to look out at the world? Isn’t all our experience intrinsically ‘subjective’?

      So I’d say that there is nothing wrong with beauty. It is, in fact, simply another manifestation of meaning in the world. Intuitive rather than conceptual, but there in the world. It is in our daily lives, so how could it not be in the world? If any meaning has value in the world, why not beauty? Because we often disagree? That would be like saying poverty wasn’t important because people disagree about it. And the fact that only some of us see the same things is not a statement of the failure of any concept, much less of the idea of beauty. It is a statement that we have not learned to see all there is to see in the world. Isn’t our disagreement simply a call to us to help others see what we see?

      Are others ‘wrong’ to not see what we see? Are we ‘wrong’ not to see what they do? Isn’t the world simply filled with a multiplicity and variability that strains concepts like ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’? Isn’t it true that the world is so filled with contestable points of view that the only sane conclusion must be that our universe admits of contrary and even contradictory interpretations? If we could but name one proposition that every single human throughout the history of mankind would agree with, then there might be an objectivity worth considering. But infants have their own point of view, different cultures believe different things, and madmen also have conclusions of their own. And if these are merely ‘subjective’ just what does that say about our own point of view?

      Oops! Another helter skelter ramble!

      Thanks for posing the question, Joel! These seem to be conversations worth having.

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