Critique your failures

“The other night during the juror’s comments at the Biennial Show of the Hamilton Potters Guild juror Angelo Di Petta said there is nothing worse that someone’s indifference to your work. It is better to make work that someone loves or that they hate. At least they have some kind of feeling for your work. I had a Professor once that said “Say something brilliant and they will remember you as the person who said something brilliant! Say something stupid and they will remember you as the person who said something stupid. But if you say nothing at all who will remember you?” Making work without feeling is indifference to the material. Living with indifference is a non- state of mind. With the passing of so many clay legends this past year I am reminded that life is precious and that we should live it with passion not with indifference.”  Tony Clennell

A student I worked with a few months ago has become really serious about moving forward with pottery in his life. He has found a passion, and he wants to explore it. As someone who cares about helping people do these kinds of creative things I could not be more pleased. It is part of my conscious mission to encourage this sort of interest wherever and whenever I can.

The community center I teach at doesn’t provide the best opportunity for giving feedback to the students. Getting students to LOOK at what they are doing is a far cry from getting them to make things. Training their eyes to what details make what difference in the pots is a slow and cautious chivying to the water. The wild horses don’t always see what you are showing them and will bolt at sudden noises and unfamiliar scents. They will look at the water and see nothing special. They won’t always understand that you get to drink from this reservoir.

But some students ARE interested in broadening their horizons, exploring their options, and you just hope that you are there at the right time with the right words and examples to help them get what they need. The one student who emailed me the other day has a fresh batch of pots that were fired in one of the local wood kilns and he is interested in some feedback. In other words, he’s at the point where he actually wants to look at the pots and figure out what it is possible to learn from them. He is interested in learning to see more of the information that is portrayed in the pots he made. He is ready to care about the difference that is possible. Its no longer simple acceptance that anything which survives the kiln is good, and it is not indifference to making ‘bad’ or ‘good’ work.

This is an important step for many students. It seems, however, that the usual temptation is to look at only the pots that came out nice. I suggested that he bring not just the pots he likes, but also the ones he doesn’t. If you are just learning from the success stories you are only getting half of the picture. Its actually an example of the survivorship bias, and by only examining the winners we may draw the wrong conclusions. Here’s why:

Think of it like this: Every artist is trying to find a way to express themselves and to communicate, so in at least one respect what we are doing is like learning a new language. The interesting thing is that we are also making up that language as we go, so there are no guide books, dictionaries, and grammar texts unless we want to speak someone else’s language. We can trace the exact route that others have followed if that is our intention. But that only teaches us what other people have had to say.

Which is not to say that we can’t learn from other people, its just that we often have our own agenda that may not be covered by someone else’s expressions. Our goals and motivations are no one’s but our own, in the end. We simply recognize that some languages share similar origins and reflect many of the same values in the world. Different languages can overlap in important and interesting ways. (Having grown up speaking Dutch for a few years, when I had to take German in my American high school I realized just how easy it was to confuse what you do in one language with what you do in the other. If there were speakers of a Dutch/German creole in my class I would have been fine, but my pidgin attempts rarely impressed my teacher.)

Discovering the kind of art we wish to express means coming to grips with what it is possible to express. What things do we want to express? Figuring that out is part of what we have to learn, but we also need to uncover those things that will not be a part of our language. We need to learn not just what it makes sense to do but what it makes no sense to do. We need to find the things that we would rather not give permission to. Things become visible not just from the light shining on them but from the shadows that are created. Anything that means anything is a context. We discover ‘good’ not in isolation but because it stands out from ‘bad’. To have a this it often means we also have a not that. We draw the circle not just to define what stands inside but to exclude what stands apart…..

These are some new jumbo cruets that I made yesterday. The spouts are radically different from the ‘elephant trunks’ I usually put on my pouring vessels. These resemble the Michael Simonesque teapot spouts that are ribbed flat on the underside.

(L)The handle is a bit too large and the spout maybe a bit too fleshy where it joins the body and sticks out more horizontal than it should. (M) The spout is a bit longer than I like and the 'shoulder' is a bit flaccid. (R) This came pretty close, but the spout aims too high and is too near the body.

(L)The handle is a bit too large and the spout maybe a bit too fleshy where it joins the body and sticks out more horizontal than it should. (M) The spout is a bit longer than I like and the ‘shoulder’ is a bit flaccid. (R) This came pretty close, but the spout aims too high and is too near the body.

(L) The spout is just a hair too long and the handle is pathetically too small. (R) Seems pretty close.

(L) The spout is just a hair too long and the handle is pathetically too small. (R) Seems pretty close.


Lesson here, if some things are not good enough on their own, occasionally they add up to something greater than the sum when put together. Sometimes you have to sacrifice one detail to let others flourish. Its the idea of breaking eggs to make an omelet. Sometimes the flaws are simply the ingredient necessary to rise above the mundane…..

In isolation they look mostly alright to me, but seeing the group helps define what things work and why. It shows how things could be better because there is a contrast that illuminates the differences. The more I can generate subtle variations and pay attention to how they play out the more information I am building into my decision making. That seems like an important point. You have to be willing to fail. And the moment you think you have it all figured out is the place you stop growing and have decided that surprises no longer interest you.

If we only learn what specific things should be expressed we might stop after a few statements have been mastered. We might take those examples and run with them. We might forever be stuck repeating “See spot run”, or “Jack and Jill went up a hill”. The more important realization is that the things we like are only some of the things it is possible to express. We have permission to express them, but it is not necessary to only do so. What we like are the details that we find it important to communicate. There can be qualitatively equivalent subtle variations and differently complementary alternatives. The things we don’t like are the details that we seek to avoid.

What we learn in picking up and inventing this new language is that there is a shape to what we are doing. Its a shape that we are continually uncovering. Some edges are clear, others are less defined. We are given a code, but its often much more effective as proscription than prescription.

Its like we have found parts of the buried tablet describing the new Commandments. “Thou shalt not…” means never do that. “Honor thy….” means do that when it is appropriate, not always or only do that. If we confuse permission and conditional responsibility with obligation we can mistakenly shut down all our other options. The details I like are merely some of the words I get to use to express specific things, but there are many possible words that can express many other possible things. We need to learn as many of them as we can until we are comfortable making the statements we feel we need to make. We need to continue at least until we can communicate to the people we want to reach. You learn that you like Italian food. That doesn’t mean you only eat Italian food or that it is the only thing you can possibly like. You learn that you hate eggplant and Brussels sprouts, so you know exactly what you are NOT going to be eating. Does that make sense?

Our failures stand out as the things where our language breaks down, where we make statements we regret, where we communicate poorly or things we wish we hadn’t, or where we simply fail to make sense. Our failures are a sort of doggerel that doesn’t properly belong to the language we are trying to speak. They are the incorrect tenses of verbs, indecipherable nouns, incoherent grammar, disjointed construction, dead ends and whatever wrong turns that send you farther away from your intended destinations. And you have to look at these when they come up. You have to understand them and figure out what went bad, why they went wrong, and in what ways they failed. You have to know your history of failure or get stuck making the same mistakes and wrong turns over and over. And until you learn this lesson you will wonder why your fingers hurt every time you put them close to a flame…… Failure instructs us in ways that success never can.

You can’t go through life without making mistakes, but the best way forward isn’t to only do the things you know will work. You can’t simply cling to success. That only ends up with you treading in a circle and repeating yourself. You have to keep yourself open to the new discoveries, which means that you will continue to make mistakes. You will test boundaries as you discover them. You will also invent new points of view for which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t yet exist. You will continue to redraw the map and color in areas as they unfold to your exploration. But that still leaves the many things that remain hidden, the things that are yet also permissible and the huge majority of things that have yet to be known.

Learning a language isn’t a recipe for only saying certain things in a certain way, its a process for interrogating the world, for asking questions, and for uncovering answers. Its a method for coming up with things that have never been expressed before. So its important to have as many tools in your tool belt as you can reasonably fit.

You can specialize, of course. You can be The Master of Declarative Statements. But you can also set your one preferred language aside and learn to speak something different, with different rules and different values. We can be bilingual and multilingual if we are inclined. Even our failures, the places we wouldn’t normally go, can have a possible context in which they might make sense. It turns out I like raw Brussels sprouts. I like Baba ghanoush.

Which only means it is important to remember that the things we are learning are the framework of one possible language only. And its okay to be committed to that as long as we understand it could have been different and still can if we wish it. The shape of the world we see is only as it appears from this one point of view. Stand outside of that and you may discover even stranger things than you had imagined were possible.

Protect your failures. Don’t ignore them. Nurture them in this one specific way: Respect that what you did was a mistake, and because it is important not to repeat it you will give it its due. You will avoid it in the future. You will learn to critique your failures. And this means you will come to live inside them. You will inhabit your mistakes until you know why it is important not to go there again. And you will do this because you are better than that. You are not indifferent. And you are not lulled by the siren song of easy victories. You are an explorer who navigates the rocky shoals and braves the tempestuous seas. A challenge is almost never a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign, just a warning. It means something because it has consequences. And that is what we learn from, good and bad. If you avoid all challenges you have simply learned to play it safe.

All for now!

Happy potting!


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, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Critique your failures

  1. Just found this in Brainpickings:

    “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do. . . .

    Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they’ve done a dozen. At best there’s a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable. “Nothing to paint and nothing to paint with,” as Beckett says of Bram van Velde. The not-knowing is not simple, because it’s hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives. . . .


    The problems that seem to me to define the writer’s task at this moment (to the extent that he has chosen them as his problems) are not of a kind that make for ease of communication, for work that rushes toward the reader with outflung arms — rather, they’re the reverse. Let me cite three such difficulties that I take to be important, all having to do with language. First, there is art’s own project … of restoring freshness to a much-handled language, essentially an effort toward finding a language in which making art is possible at all. This remains a ground theme, as potent, problematically, today as it was a century ago. Secondly, there is the political and social contamination of language by its use in manipulation of various kinds over time and the effort to find what might be called a “clean” language… Finally, there is the pressure on language from contemporary culture in the broadest sense — I mean our devouring commercial culture — which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of the reader from the writer.


    Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.” Donald Barthelme

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