So, it probably looks as if I’ve finally gone off the deep end with these last several posts…..
It may not have been wholly clear even in my own mind, but what I was attempting was a bit of “talking about how we talk about pots”. Which may not be such an easy thing. We know how to make what we make, but its quite another thing to articulate why we make these things or to communicate that to other people.
I remember when I was well into my second year of pot making I shared a house with a Painting graduate student. At one point in a conversation I expressed the opinion that I couldn’t say anything informative about my pots, that “words simply didn’t capture what I was doing”. In my own experience up to that point pottery was something ineffable. She looked at me like I was a stark raving lunatic. Or a drooling apple-knocker. Or a gibbering nimrod…..
But how was I supposed to know? I wasn’t in a position where experience had led me to talk about pots. I didn’t have any formal (academic) instruction yet. These weren’t courses that forced me to verbalize what I was doing. No one had told me that I needed to talk about my pots. So how was I supposed to know how to do it? I lacked experience, but I also simply didn’t have the vocabulary to put it together. The values and emotions behind what I was doing didn’t seem to fit into words or even clear thoughts. Making pots involved me sitting down at a wheel and doing the thing I had come to love doing. End of story. What else was there for me?
I think it has to be true that anything one does as as a beginner simply doesn’t have the clarity of sophistication or even much practical awareness of what is being done. To learn anything means to gain certain experiences. Beginners are by definition at a deficit. To learn how to talk about pots we need to learn to see what we are looking at. That comes first. And only then through trial and error do we start to put the words together that seem to best express what we are doing.
And interestingly, without the words, sometimes we don’t really see things so well. Its as if we learn new things about the world in the company of language. Words tend to help us focus and differentiate. Words give us nuance and value. Its amazing what we can do in the absence of words. But its also amazing what we can do once we do have the words. Learning how to talk about things also teaches us how to look at them. Sometimes we discuss things to help bring clarity to our own thinking. The feedback of testing ideas against the world is simply how we grow. It is exploration rather than conservation. And an open mind is a vessel that can still be filled…..
And no one is born into this world knowing how to talk about pots (or really anything else). Why would it be hard to understand that we also need to learn how to discuss them? And why would we think that we are good at discussing them if we haven’t had much practice? Just how much practice do we need before we can clearly articulate all we are seeing? And how much putting into words do we need before we see all there is to see? Do we sometimes fool ourselves with the simplicity of our inexperience? Our conviction that we already know all there is to know? I’m sure that’s what my roommate thought about me. I probably did seem like a nincompoop at the time….
Well, eventually I started taking classes that were academic, and I did find myself in positions where there were conversations about pots. How others talked about pots helped me see what I was looking at. Some of what got said was nonsense. Some of it was ill informed hogwash. But occasionally it helped to have an opinion from someone with greater experience or a contrasting viewpoint. You even get to see your own handiwork in a new light once you find the tools to discuss it. And so a light bulb suddenly went on. It turned out there were words that could help me talk about what I was doing.
Fellow potter blogger Bridget Fairbank has embarked on the ambitious internet project of critiquing pots. She, like me, wants to talk about pots. There really are no guidelines on how we discuss other’s work on the internet. You just try not to offend anyone (unless you are a self absorbed ape who doesn’t care). In Bridget’s words, “You can think anything you want. You can believe anything you want. You can say anything you want. But for Bernard’s Sake say what has prompted these thoughts. Most often for me it is a feeling that stems from an interaction with a piece of work and can often take a swack of discerning (and blabbing) to figure out just where the visceral reaction stems from and why it was felt.”
What do we see in other people’s pottery that can be talked about? Is it the same stuff the artist herself would talk about? Do we notice only the stuff we see in our own work? Have we learned how others view things? Can we see the difference? And can the act of talking about these things be enlightening for both parties? Can artists learn new ideas by hearing what others have to say about their work?
Isn’t it true that there is no definitive version of what can be said about a pot? That someone somewhere will always have a different impression and other things to say? If we don’t always agree, does that tell us something? Is everyone else simply blind to the value we ourselves bring to the table, or are there many differences that simply have their own legitimate value? And that all these perspectives simply add to the wonderful complexity of how pots (and the world) can be appreciated?
Not everything made by other potters is my cup of tea, but surely they are someone else’s cups of tea. Isn’t it this strange diversity of opinions that helps make a human life so fascinating? That we all see the world just a bit differently? That we each have our unique contributions to make? Shouldn’t we be thankful that we are not all clones, and that we do not all see the world the same exact way?
It may be enough knowing what we know, liking what we like, and either having or not having the words to capture all that. But doesn’t it help to have all the available tools at play when it comes to discussing pots with others? Without shared values and shared vocabulary will there be enough common ground for people to discuss their work? And see all there is to see? Or will we end up talking past one another, failing to communicate? Will it be like the ceramic Tower of Babel?
Are we not served well as potters by being able to talk about our pots with an open and inquisitive mind? Isn’t it in our interest to learn to see more than the values we ourselves instill in our pots? We don’t need to like Darjeeling to know what it is. Just how broad do we wish our experience and education to be? It seems like something worth thinking about at least….
So, if these are important questions for potters wanting to talk about pots, have my recent blog topics been completely off target? “Beauty”, “mystery”, “open mindedness”, “talent”, “imagination”? Are they moon shots about nothing important? Are they discursions into arcane and nebulous esoterica? Are they wholly irrelevant to anyone interested in making pots? Or talking about them? Maybe….. Maybe not….
“Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity.” Rosamond E. M. Harding