What was I thinking… in 2013?

Hi all, and a belated happy new year!

I’ve just been informed that my blog was among the top pottery related blogs of 2013 as reviewed on the Pottery Making Info blog.


I am incredibly honored to find that all the hard work I put into this blog has mattered even just a bit to others out there. Thanks for reading, and for keeping the art vibrant in your own lives and thoughts.

So what was this blog all about last year? I went back and read a few entries, but quickly became overwhelmed trying to choose my favorites from among the 83 posts I put up. I noticed several recurring themes, from the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, how artists deal with earning a living, and the limits of rationality and control in what we are doing. Oftentimes I address the same or similar topics from a slightly different angle, like mapping the contours of an object to get a more three dimensional perspective. Sometimes it makes sense to backtrack or even deny where you’ve just been to make sense of things from another starting point. Maybe that’s a lesson in itself…..

My favorite posts from the last year are among the following, in no particular order:


“As we learn about the world we also learn how to judge it. The two activities are not all that separate. Expertise isn’t something that is added on the top. Its a measure of what we have learned. Its a measure of the solar system of our interests. Its a measure of the force of gravity in certain directions and how space curves toward particular domains. Our interests are those strange attractors under whose influence we are swayed. And expertise only rides on the force of gravity that draws us nearer. Other planets, other solar systems, draw different people in other often contrary directions.”


“Its really the idea of perfection that betrays us. It sets up unrealistic expectations. The idea of perfection only holds water in small bits. The larger and more complex they are the less perfect they seem. Perfection is mostly a fantasy. Its a noble idea that has few if any members. And it asks us to ignore or psychically amputate the less perfect real world parts. In other words, its sort of a mutilation. How can love be something that asks that of us?”


“Artists and supporters of the arts are often transfixed by their inability to extend their audience. We are like deer in the headlights. We are dumbfounded that something so obvious to us, that moves us with passion, can pass others by unnoticed. It can get trampled underfoot as the Philistines perplexingly rush to witness some other activity that is almost always incomprehensible to us. We don’t get it. Whatever got their attention surely pales beside what we’ve got? Mustn’t it? Isn’t our taste (not your’s, the guy with the tuba, obviously…) infallible?”


“Cast offs and tailings. Residue and dross. Scraps….. And really, anything in daily life that is not always seen as a significant part of some identifiable larger whole. Miscellany. Ephemera. The insubstantial and the serendipitous. Accidents and inessentials. Extraneous and contingent. Adventitious and extrinsic…. Things like a ray of sunshine through a morning dappled window. A shy smile that unexpectedly brightens a child’s face. The stirring branches in a Wintry wind. Echoes of distant laughter. A foot print in a meadow. The first warm breeze of Spring. A cold beer after a hard day’s work. The wafting aroma of breakfast coffee. The scent of a lost loved one on a carefully kept sweater. The nearly full moon tucked behind a cascade of trailing clouds. The patter of children’s tiny feet…… There one moment and gone the next.

And because we are too often careless, these moments slip through our fingers unnoticed and soon forgotten. Some would call these things ‘trivia’. And to the world weary and blinkered, perhaps they are…. And so, because they are the underprivileged of our attention, the derided and scorned, perhaps also they are important to cherish. They are the underdogs in a world that seems fixated on the loud and boisterous. But the world is so much more than that. It is simply pregnant with quiet potential. Pregnant with humble meaning. Do we dare reach for it?”


“Sometimes I lose track of why I’m here…. Sometimes its not at all clear that when I’m gone I will have left the world a better place for my efforts. Sometimes I just can’t see the difference I make….. What is this thing, life? What is this opportunity we’ve been given? Sometimes I feel as if I’m fumbling it away. That I’m getting by without getting on. That the rub of friction is building up callouses which only insulate me further.

The trick, it seems, is to not stop feeling, but to learn how vulnerability is the price for being alive. And if living is a struggle, we need to learn to change the world rather than make ourselves immune to it. Living isn’t merely coping. We need to imagine what could and should be, rather than simply accepting what is…. The trick, it seems, is to take those abrasive grains of sand and imagine something different. Fashion pearls. Monasteries and playgrounds…. The trick, it seems, is to be an artist….. And everyone is an artist, whether they know it or not, whether they have it in their job description or not, whether they get much practice or not….”


“Art is experienced very differently depending on what side of the production one stands. An audience gets to see the finished product. What it doesn’t see is all the hard work and decision making that went into it. What it sees is the results of creativity, how creativity was embodied, not how it was conceived; Its full fledged adulthood, not how it was born; Not the difficult gestation, not the careful nurturing, not always the creativity itself. It sees the polished performance, not the tedious awkward stumbling that precedes that more consumer friendly version. They read the published book rather than the half baked drafts that came before. They miss out on all that god awful laborious editing. Honing…. The actual creative process is often an invisible mine strewn field of slow starts, backtracking, drudgery, blisters, back ache, and heartbreak….”


“The conscious course of our lives is usually a battle between staying the course and following our nose. But interestingly also, sometimes even that doesn’t matter, and we are simply caught up in events and circumstances beyond our managed or operative control. The reasons we have for jumping are not always the reasons we have for landing….. We often get lucky. Taking the step seems easy. Predicting where it will land is often quite something else…. We need to step, and we often get the chance to choose where and when to do so. Seeing what happens if we take the turn at this corner rather than the next one often leads us to an unexpected and serendipitous place. Sometimes the success of our lives is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. And this usually seems to happen quite despite or regardless of our manipulation and designs….”


“An anthropologist friend of mine once suggested that the idea of ‘beauty’ was in fact universal to human culture simply because we all divide the world into things we like and things we reject. Its part of how we navigate the world. The idea of beauty is both descriptive and normative. And the manifestation and evolution of art has pretty much everything to do with that. What makes the impulse to create art different from the impulse to create havoc is that art is contributed as a positive change to the world. The intentions behind art is that it makes the world better and more livable. Aesthetic experience is almost always seen as a cultural evaluation of ‘the good’. ‘The beautiful’ stands on one end of the cultural divide between the sacred and the profane, good and evil, the sublime and the tawdry, beauty and ugliness, crime and compassion…..  It tells us something about the difference between right and wrong. We make art because its the right thing to do, not simply a biological impulse. THIS is what art has historically delivered to the world.”


“And it seems that this sort of openness is at war with our expectations. The more we are ruled by expectation the less we have room to navigate the unknown. Expectations are designed to keep us where we think we are or put us where we think we need to be. Its a compass by which we intend to steer. We plot and plan as though the evidence we have is always enough to guarantee our success or our happiness. The unknown rather than being a place of discovery is a place to be avoided. If we can ‘see’ our potential success then we have something to aim for. “Go with what you know” is the motto.

And so, serendipity ends up being the enemy of our expectations. The success and happiness we can’t imagine, can’t see, and can’t anticipate we don’t plan for, don’t accommodate, and don’t actively strive to accept. The door is mostly shut against them. Its as if our hands only close about the things we anticipate, the things we already understand. You can’t want what you don’t know, so we end up only wanting what we already do know. Simple as that. We trade openness to the randomness of chance for the concreteness of our expectations. Its one of the illusions of our control.”


“And so its an issue that is especially important for artists to consider: Passion is vulnerable to pay. The passion of artists is threatened and can be corrupted from without when extrinsic motivations compete with the intrinsic justifications we gave ourselves. If creative people become professional artists as a means to make a living, then making art is sometimes no longer an end in itself. It serves a purpose, the purpose of getting paid. And when we think of how much we wanted to be artists because this was what we loved doing, then we can see where the conflict arises. What we would have done simply because its what we love doing we now do “for pay”, which is an entirely different motivation, and records its success and failure very differently.”


“What I think is important is that we do more to make the case, as one of your panelists described, that art isn’t simply a career but a lifestyle choice. I think we need to do a better job of explaining that the model of full time professionalism is mostly a far flung ideal. Most working artists are also teaching, or giving workshops, or have jobs that are independent from their artistic pursuits. Being a full time artist is not a default, and its not really something that is attainable for most people with artistic ambitions. We need to introduce aspiring artists to that circumstance before they get carried away with the romantic myths that have informed most of us along this path. The question is, how do we make our art practice fit in a life that includes other means of making a living or simply other interests and pursuits?


“The point I’m trying to make is that as artists we often work on the difference between small things. It can be subtle. A mere change of context. You can miss it if you are not paying attention. An outsider can think you’ve just made the same basic thing, when in fact you’ve just finally beaten the odds and made that minor adjustment that makes this one variation a success unlike any other thing you’ve done before (!). True story! And this is something every serious artist either aspires to or can already relate to.

And outsiders can’t always see that. They see the threads that tie things together more than they see the nuances that separate one form from another. The easy hack is to see patterns. The shortcut we take that stops us from thinking too deeply or seeing too clearly is the sidestepping of the sheer chaotic difference that surrounds us at all times. The chaos can be unnerving. And yet, artists take advantage of that very dissonance. Discrepancy and novelty is their bread and butter. Artists are trained to notice the minute difference of small things and to invest value in its inconsistency. Artists are the ones who chase after the elusive. They do not take the easy road of settling for the status quo or of only regurgitating sameness. Any artist worth the name is an inveterate explorer of the open seas of possibility”


“Finding harmony with the still point at the center of the wheel is easy after a bit of experience. Its something that makes sense to aim for. But we can also strive for this uniformity not merely as the endpoint but as just a middle step in the process. We can stop with simple uniformity or we can push things further. Personally, I like pots that are different in sometimes subtle or nuanced ways, sometimes exaggerated and striking permutations. I like pots that are oblong, that are square, that are triangular, that are loosely round, that have sides, a front and back, that are dented and ‘deformed’, that have movement and dynamic tension…… So, you can see that altering pottery forms is at heart a Mathematical proposition: “Quantity, structure, space, and change””


“With something as important as creativity is it actually necessary to wait for permission? The permission that its alright to start only once we know what we are doing? Creativity does not need permission. Creativity only waits for those not brave enough to plunge right in. Be brave! Be your own permission!”


“The picture of things like Mathematics and Science seduces us. Even though math is a human invention it describes the world tolerably well. Its the ideal we feel all other explanation must live up to. And unfortunately ‘beauty’ is often also disrespected in the Arts as simply ‘too subjective’, a quaint personal reference that has nothing much to do with the ‘real’ world. There is no mathematical calculus for beauty. Not since Dada, at least….. But we can’t forget that there was an agenda that made it necessary to kill off beauty. Dada reminded us that the traditional canons of beauty were as arbitrary as the next. Beauty had to die for Art to move forward. Those institutionalized standards were unconscionable to a generation that had just lived through The War to End All Wars….. Those forms of beauty were an affront to the newly developing sensibilities. Can we blame them for such a strong reaction to the horrors of the world?”


“But life as a business person aside, what does ‘good art’ have to do with commercial appeal in the first place? You’ve heard “Sell the sizzle, not the steak” before, right? Doesn’t that sum it up in a sense? Sometimes our business efforts are not even aimed at the steak, the work itself, but the perception of that work, the sizzle. Sometimes we are trying to get by not on the quality of our work but the appearance of quality, regardless of what stands behind it….. If it ‘smells’ good it will be appealing, even if its a slightly rancid slab of mostly gristle and fat. The prime cut is usually far too expensive and takes too much effort and time to ‘cook up’ well. If we are only trying to sell the sizzle we can simply cut a few corners here and there. And if this is what our business sense is telling us to do, then surely there is an entrenched conflict between ‘good art’ and what sells…..”

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, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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