Teaching ‘Looseness’: The genetic variations of organic art

“The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for authentic awareness…” Abraham Joshua Heschel

As an artist who also teaches students the art and skills of making pots I sometimes face a challenge in explaining the allure of imperfection. I think it is easy in our culture to have certain expectations for what ‘beauty’ is supposed to look like. Quite often we accept the symmetrical and uniform, the ‘classic’ proportions, as our standard of the beautiful. Its the default measurement. And this happens in everyday life where slender fashion models and toothy movie stars are thrust on our cultural awareness in a powerful marketing campaign for the ‘Ken and Barbie’ ideals of perfection.

But that’s hardly ever real life. And learning to make art means starting from a place that is miles away from those ideals. They can’t be the only standards we aspire to, or (as beginners and novices) we will drive ourselves crazy with failure. And there is so much more to enjoy about the nuance of the world than the simpleminded obvious standards of the fashion runways. We are never really challenged by those ideals. Most of us can agree that they’ve got it. “Easy on the eyes” means easy on the brain. The real trick is to learn to look beyond the Brad Pitts and Jennifer Anistons and see what else is also beautiful. As artists especially, it is our task often to find those hidden moments and serendipitous details that are off the beaten path and against the grain of our cultural norms….

So getting students to appreciate, much less embrace, the wobbly idiosyncrasy of an alternate take on beauty can sometimes be an effort. Our culture often likes to present its ideals as supreme and unchallenged. The ‘correct version’. And stepping outside the comfort zone can be controversial. Not just in accepting the ‘less than perfect’, the slightly off center, the out of round, the wobbly, the odd, the awkward, the unusual, the unexpected, the surprising, the counterintuitive, the defiance of ideals, the rejection of society’s norm, but it can also be a hurdle to get them to understand how to nurture this ‘imperfection’. And, as this is often defined more by what it is not, by an absence of perfection, this can be tricky. How can we purposely aim for things that are not of a certain standard? Isn’t the idea of a standard precisely that it gives us something to aim for? Getting students to accept alternate and idiosyncratic standards is sometimes as challenging as getting them to believe that the world is not flat, and you won’t fall of the edge if you sail far enough.

And so, the biggest impediment is often that students are hooked into making their work with specific well toned ideals in mind. Six-pack abs and slender calves. Until we learn otherwise we are believers in our institutional standards. Its the end goal of the billboard worthy result that often draws students onward. And unhitching them from this way of proceeding is the part that seems to make the least sense to their understanding of how the world works. Doesn’t success mean aiming for these cultural norms?

Serendipity and letting go are as far from an attitude towards the important things in life as is imaginable. The more we care about things the more we are urged to grip them tighter. If you truly care, you will cling and hold on, and judge every outcome by how well we measured up to that ideal. The more we care, the more success seems to be determined by the specific act of measuring up……

But that only gets us as far as we are can aim. The tightness of our vision constricts our potential, limits our possibility, and squeezes the variation and discrepancy from what we do. Perhaps it sometimes even squeezes the ‘life’ from what we are making…… In the worst case scenarios working only within clearly circumscribed standards is stifling and works against creativity. It crushes variation with intolerance. And the fear of distortion is almost a moral threat. But the alternatives are not between ‘anything goes’, a complete lack of standards, and ‘only this goes’.

Letting go of the finished result, or simply allowing certain things to come to pass, isn’t giving up on our right to judge the results. We can simply defer. Its just saying that where we got is not always as important as how we got there. Its an ethic that sometimes holds the means, the process, as at least as important as the ends, the results. Its saying that certain elements are important, but not that they are necessarily included in exactly this way, in precisely these proportions, or specifically to this extent. The process can be the means of discovery. “Yes I will turn left here, use this tool at this point in roughly this way, but I don’t know where it will get me.”

If we only tread the path we know will get us to proven results, then our powers of discovery are clearly circumscribed. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Its simply not the only way. It doesn’t lead to the only version of the beautiful. We simply can’t know all the possible variations of beauty beforehand. And so we attempt to explore them by putting ourselves in positions where they may be uncovered. We allow for serendipity and surprise. Its by giving ourselves the openness of options that we move beyond the already and precisely known. And the vision of perfection can be rightly seen for what it is: But one of many possible things to aim for…..

Think of it like this: We are engaged in creating. And we have a recipe. We will be using these ingredients, sometimes more of one, less of another, and sometimes we will leave some out and add altogether new things. In a way it will be like we are building people. Almost everyone gets two arms, but there is no rule about how long or how thick the arms are supposed to be. And everyone gets a nose, but there is no rule about how wide or how pinched the noses will be. There is no specific ideal for noses, thought there may be versions we decide are ‘too long’, and others that are ‘too short’, and often those will make sense only in proportion to the other features. A ten foot nose might actually look small on a mile high giant. In a way, using art to discover new and interesting things about the world is like an experiment with a Mr Potato Head doll.

The creative approach of looseness is like an operation in genetics in this way. What we end up making might or might not all have a nose, two arms, two legs, feet, a belly and a head, but how those ingredients play out is a matter for discovery. And while mostly all the same ingredients are there no two iterations are exactly the same. Sometimes two examples will be related in no clear way and at other times there will be ‘family resemblances’. Sometimes we will see that although different things won’t match up precisely they still belong together and share a kinship. The taxonomy can be loosely organized, thematic. Its the difference between making clones, where exact ingredients are repeated exactly, and organic births where new editions are brought into this world as unique members of a tribe, or sometimes strange and new mutations that head off into entirely uncharted territories.

Did that make sense?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

Make it however it makes sense for you to do 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.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

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