Juggling serendipity or white knuckling pegs into holes

Master potter/artist and notorious deep thinker Chris Staley has this to say:

I had to think about what he meant by ‘presentational’ as opposed to ‘representational’, but its a great distinction. And I really wasn’t sure at first what he was trying to identify when he talked about the Thanksgiving table. But now that I understand it better I think this also is a fine analogy.

The distinction he is making is most obvious in the difference between goal oriented activity and process oriented activity. Its the difference that plays out in having a plot to follow and letting the characters find their own way. ‘Presenting’ is the view of the way forward, from the front end of the process: This is how we proceed. Its setting the table, setting things in motion. Its what arrows we’ve got in which quivers, and which ducks are lined up in what rows. ‘Representing’ is the view from the end backwards, looking back: This is where we got. Its the state of affairs that results from the process, and it tells the story of what went on. Its the view of which arrows hit which targets, and where the ducks ended up once they were turned loose.

‘Presenting’ is the means for an end. ‘Representing’ is the end which those means achieved. Re-presenting is a second look at the process, this time from a bit further along than where we began. Each is a directional view on what happens and why. Its a way of looking at the process and looking at the results. But within the creative activity itself we need to decide how much we are aiming, and how important the path is. We need to decide whether the outcome is premeditated or investigative. Our approach can be either ‘loose’ or ‘tight’, flexible or rigid, or a combination of the two to one degree or another….

In tightness we see that the process is subservient to the ideal of this or that particular formal outcome. The process is only aiming at something fairly specific. Its terminal. How we get there is less important than that we get there. If our process suddenly lead to results that were not expected or outside the range of what we were aiming for, then the process would need to be overhauled. Just as in industrial mechanical manufacture. Its the end results that count, and if we could get there some other way, then that’s entirely acceptable. Efficiency can be more valuable than using a particular tool or way of doing things. The goal is all that matters. That the pegs all go in the right holes. The finished pot/product is only allowed to be within a certain range of permissible outcomes. The success of the process is measured by the tolerance for its conclusion….

In looseness we see much different priorities. We see that the process drives the results, and the finished product is subservient to the way it was made. The process merely sets the stage, but what happens on the stage is significantly unpredictable. We can ‘aim’ at a species of looseness, or broad character, but the particulars themselves unfold organically from the seeds that were planted. We can grow an oak tree, but not have in mind specifically the tree that it will become, how many branches and exactly what it will look like. That can only be loosely predicted….. The gesture is intentional in the sense that it intends this process and not others. The process isn’t aiming at specific outcomes as much as it is attempting to reveal the possibility within that range of the permissible. ‘Oakness’, for instance. It is more interested in presenting options than in representing a specific state. Its more interested in the species of possibilities than the individual conformity. Its the free movement allowed by a wide open door rather than the constricting necessity of the eye of a needle.

The key to looseness is finding what’s on the other side, and we can stumble through the door, traipse along, dance a jig, walk backwards, or twist and turn. The interest is in how doing it differently leads to new places revealed. Its a strategy of serendipity. Tightness may not necessarily care how the needle is threaded, but it knows exactly what the results of threading are. Its the strategy of planning.

Because this is an issue of the control exerted by the creator its almost a Theological Question: Does our work allow for the ‘free will’ of our creations, that they unfold under their own power, by ‘accident’, and unpremeditated happenstance, or are their characters rigidly determined and the inevitable consequence of our first causes?

Did that confuse everyone?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


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, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

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