Intention is for Amateurs

What if Chuck Close had said this (just one word’s difference):

Intention is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”

…………………. Intention is for amateurs. That actually works in this quote, doesn’t it? All the many reasons why Chuck thought ‘inspiration’ was creatively inadequate are just as powerful in dismissing the importance of ‘intention’. You don’t need it to make work. You just get on with your business. You let the work take care of itself. You discover your directions just by showing up and taking those first few steps. You don’t need an intention to land on some specific place to get there or anywhere else. The specific intention is unnecessary. The doing is the important thing, not the intending. Chuck wasn’t disowning every manifestation of inspiration. He was just saying that you don’t need it. The same seems to go for intention.

And yet I keep hearing from artists that intention is supposed to make the difference. I’m not saying that it doesn’t make a difference, just as I would never say that inspiration is to be universally scoffed at. But does it make THE difference…..?

For instance, what I keep hearing is that we intend fine art in some way differently than we intend non-fine art. As in, “the intentions behind this painting are obviously different than the intentions behind this piece of pottery.” The case that is so often being made is that this fundamental difference in intentions is in essence what discriminates pottery and other non-fine art from the truly fine art. And maybe if you look at a painting on the wall of a museum and a mug in someone’s sink you’d have to say that the painter never intended his painting to hold beverages and need an occasional scrubbing. And you might say that the potter never intended his mug to have a gilt frame and be hung on some austere wall with a spotlight on it. When you look at it that way it seems so very obvious…..

But intention doesn’t really answer anything about the object itself. We don’t categorically intend different objects in different ways. Intention is a slippery customer. We can intend bloody well anything we can imagine. Intention is not limited to the way things stand. Its not limited to reality as we perceive it. In fact, an artist’s intention is almost always to take the world and make it different. To intend the world as something other than it currently is. Not just to reproduce it in the same form, but to take raw materials and give it a new form. To paint what has never been painted before, to sculpt where no artist has sculpted before. If intention is all it takes, then why not mugs-in-museums?

Duchamp showed that this is not so inconceivable when he put his ‘fountain’ on a pedestal. If we can intend a urinal-as-art surely we can make the jump to other unconventional objects?

The point being that we are often merely bewitched by our conventions. We can’t see the world as easily without them, so it is difficult to imagine things like pots on pedestals. But that isn’t the fault of pottery. There are pots on pedestals already. Rather, one urinal seems to weigh more in the minds of some folks than the entire output of working potters. We don’t believe their intentions could remotely connect up with the lofty intentions of an artist like Duchamp, or even run of the mill ‘conventional’ artists using traditional media. Its as if there exists a fundamental intentional non-sequitur between a thing that quite possibly has utilitarian function and what belongs in museums. Its as if what belongs (potentially) in a dish drain could never be intended to belong in a museum. When you look at the world in a certain way we can’t even bridge that gap in intentions. Its as if we are being told that it is psychologically impossible to intend both ‘function’ and ‘art’ at once. It seems inconceivable…….


But as I’ve already said, intentions are slippery customers. They slide out from under us and we sometimes find that where we are now standing has nothing to do with what we intended.

Enter the world of serendipity. Which, if you think about it, has almost always been an important weapon in the artist’s arsenal. Take Pablo Picasso’s word on it, for example:

“I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.”

So bugger all intention. If what Picasso suggests is generally true, then artists’ intentions between different work almost never can be the same. One artist over the course of his or her lifetime will have an enormous variety of intentions. None of which seemed to matter in the end, really.

Intention is often what holds us back. We can get bogged down in intending uninteresting things. Repeating ourselves. We can let what we already know be the final word on our destination. We can get too comfortable with the ‘brilliant’ ideas that occupy our minds and not venture into the unfamiliar territory to see what else is out there. Or, as Chuck Close puts it, its the idea that “things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt.” Intention really is for amateurs.

Just ask any person with substance abuse issues who has tried to quit. The intention to quit and quitting are not the same thing. Intention is for amateurs. If you put your faith in intention alone it will get you nowhere. There will be moments when your intention slips and you want to take just a sip. For old times’ sake. F-ck that! You sometimes need to do certian things regardless of what your intentions are. Ignore your intentions. It might be better to intend it in some cases, but you can’t build your house just on intentions. A gentle breeze can blow most intentions from their perch. “Oh I meant to feed your pets when you were gone, but something always came up. Oops! Sorry!”

So keep your intentions. Nurture them if you must. Just don’t tell me that intending something ‘as art’ is what makes it different from ‘non-art’. And I intend to rule the world one day! Bwa ha ha ha ha!

Is it any wonder there is a suspicion that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes much of the time? The intention that what we’ve got going on is somehow ‘special’ doesn’t make it special. Not when your junk is dangling in the street and the sun is baking that uncovered non-crown-wearing cabeza that you proffer to the world as a testament to your glory. Cover that sh-t up! We don’t necessarily want to look at your ‘intentions’. Intentions are for amateurs……

I’m not saying all intention is irrelevant. Just don’t hang your hat on it……… The road to Hell is paved with Good intentions, after all. Having the right intention doesn’t mean that you aren’t still making a mess of things. The world and its intentions simply don’t always add up in that congenial a way.

Well, that’s one side of the story, at least. Of course I intended this in the nicest way possible  🙂 . I hope everyone enjoyed reading it!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

Go ahead, intend beauty. Repeat after me: “Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!”



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

12 Responses to Intention is for Amateurs

  1. John Bauman says:

    ouw! (<—best James Brown scream)

    You hit a home run with this'n, son.

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    I intended to leave a comment here.

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    “The intention that what we’ve got going on is somehow ‘special’ doesn’t make it special. ”

    This is my problem with most artists’ statements. (Including my own.) They try to rationalize what a thing is by explaining the intentions that went into making it. Which doesn’t really make the thing itself any better or different, it just glosses it with some extra words.

    And I say this as someone who really likes glossing stuff with extra words.

  4. stephen says:

    Great post, I think the debate is good.

    As you know I think there is another side to this discussion. I think there are many potters, professional potters, that do not intend their functional work, their craft to be art and do not produce it to be enjoyed and appreciated in the same way a painter paints a painting or a clay artist creates a sculpture. Some pieces may be very ornate and certainly be beautiful and artistic and others more subtle and plain. They are intended for daily use to be enjoyed and appreciated as hand crafted pottery, not art. Because of this ‘intent’ decisions are made about a whole host of things that make the piece more functional (handle size, placement etc.) and thus dramatically change its appearance. I’ve seen any number of non-functional tea sets, vases etc that were clearly intended as art and it really was the intent that set them apart from functional pottery.

    The real potter in my world is an artist as well. Much of her work is intended to be artistic, to be enjoyed and appreciated as a piece of art. As an artist, of course, many of her functional pieces are stunning as well. It is a truly amazing thing for a potter to also be an artist and I have nothing but respect for those that blend the two at such a high level.

    Pottery as an artisan craft has a long rich tradition of it’s own that spans thousands of years. Why can’t I continue down this wonderful path of honing my skills as a potter with only my craft in mind? Why can’t professional potters exist on their own plane and proudly be ‘potters’? Why do I have to embrace my work as art and slug it out with the art community for their respect and recognition? Why do I have to be saddled with the art community and all that entails in order to be considered a professional potter?

    Can’t we be a respected part of the clay community as well?

    • Good questions!

      I think there should be no mandated limit on what we can intend for ourselves. We don’t have to do anything against our will. I’m certainly not advocating for that. There are plenty of women who resisted the equal rights movement and I can’t say they were not entitled to do so. As far as art and potters go, I’m not trying to force anything on anyone. I’m just pointing out that there is an institutional inequality depending precisely on how these words get used. Lots of people are okay with that. Lots of potters in fact. On most days the last thing I’d want for myself is to be thrust in the market dominated art world. I’m certainly not going to say that the art world is some utopia that potters are all missing out on. There is a lot of crap, and plenty of real reasons why you shouldn’t want to get mixed up in that.

      Still, when these definitions get tossed around with the authority of institutional conviction we are faced with inevitable situations where limits are being prescribed for us. There is systemic abuse and discrimination based on how those words have come to be used. I’m not fighting for potters to be more like other artists. I’m fighting to stop the prejudice that limits the opportunities of people who have chosen to make pots for a living. There is a very real glass ceiling that potters are operating against. And anyone who says that a potter shouldn’t have the same employment opportunities in academia as ceramic sculptors had better come up with more convincing reasons than any I’ve heard.

      But yeah, we can intend things as ‘art’ and things as ‘not art’. The point I’m making is that there are no physical limits on what those things can be. The intentions themselves are pure and impartial. The intention for art is in fact agnostic in terms of what the thing itself must be. That’s the beauty of intentions. And as I’ve said before, intentions are slippery customers. I can intend to eat the entire bowl of ice cream and fail to do so, and I can eat it all without having intended to…… “Oops! I just made art!”….. “Dang it, its still not art!”

      We can’t necessarily draw the lines just based on intentions…… Kids make drawing that are every bit as much real drawings as the ones professional artists make. And children’s art is almost never intended as art in the way that someone expecting a big payoff intends…. Isn’t that just interesting?

      So, my point really is that we can’t put too much faith in intentions reflecting or deciding how the world needs to be divided up. Intentions are nice. Just don’t go out the door without your clothes on 😉 Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha! (that’s me intending to be humorous 🙂 )

  5. Jessica Fong says:

    A pot has its place in the world and art has its place in the world. Sometimes they share the same space.

    • Well, that’s half the story. Do you ever worry about a world where things are forbidden from sharing the same space for no good reason other than that those in power have decided this is the way things are going to go? Or that this is simply the way things are done, that its tradition to exclude one group from another?

      Saying that pottery has its place in the world is alright, except when you use that as an excuse to keep pots in their place. I just hear echoes of people telling women that they have a place in this world and that they had better keep in it. How much discrimination is necessary before folks decide that they are getting the short end of an unnecessary deal?

      Sure there are different things in the world and all of them exhibit this difference in unique and pragmatic ways. The question is what we do with difference. As a society. Poor people are different from rich people, are they less deserving of respect? Do they need to be kept in their place?

      I have no problem with the differences between pots and paintings (for instance), but when you call one art and the other not art I’d just like an explanation that isn’t entirely arbitrary or contingent to further biases. Men are different from women, yet they are both human. Paintings are different from pots….. It seems to me that the things we call art share no common criteria and that there are sometimes fewer similarities between some of those things than there is between, say, a pot and some sculpture. Are Dance and painting more related than painting and pots? Music and sculpture? Sculpture and painting?

      One of the problems is that we get fixated on art as the object at the end of the process. Sometimes its better to say that the art is how it got there. The object itself is just the end part of that process. But if we focus on which materials were used, which tools, things can seem radically different. The ‘things’ often are. The truth is generally also that the creativity that went into each is more the same sort of process and decision making than it is something separate. If we understand that art is simply the work/process of artists, and not that art is what is only made by some creative people working in specific media, we get a much different picture.

      Another issue is that we are so wound up in our biases that we can’t usually see outside our conditioning and prejudices. We build up a structure for understanding the world, and depending on how its built some things will fit in specific ways and others will not. Its not always the fault of the things themselves that they are not appreciated. Other people can show us different ways of making sense of the world. The great thing about art, ALL art, is that it helps us see the world in new ways. Anything with aesthetic quality has that potential.

      So one of the main objections I have is that we are simply refusing to move beyond the repressive conventions that we inherited from self serving institutions. We are satisfied with only seeing the world in a specific way that has the unfortunate consequence of unfairly discriminating. Like those Supreme Court Judges who see more personhood in corporations than in women. Corporations get better protection from these clowns than do women’s rights. And that ain’t right!

      So instead of thinking that our linguistic categories tell us all there is to know, I suggest we look a little deeper and see why these categories are useful and why they sometimes are not. Don’t just accept them on faith and draw the stereotyped conclusions. Look deeper.

      If its the way we are looking at the world, maybe this will help:

      Is it a duck, is it a rabbit, or is it both? The object itself doesn’t need to change but we can answer appropriately in each of these ways. So what does that tell us? If you look at a pot and say that it is not art you are making one determination. Its not necessarily that it couldn’t be art if you learned to look at it in a different way. The key is that much of our seeing is seeing things AS something. And we need to figure out how justified we are in making that determination one way rather than another…….'s Bicycle Wheel and Stool (or, 'Art on a pedestal)

      Bicycle wheel and stool, or art? If we have learned anything from Duchamp it should be that the object itself is almost irrelevant (in some cases and with respect to our conceptual categories). What is important is how we learn to see the world. Is it art? Well, what do you need to do to see it as art? That’s the real question, and I’m just afraid that too few people are willing to see the world as containing art where they don’t expect it…….

      Geeze I can ramble on!

  6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky says:

    “It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse. The difference consists in the fact that music possesses far richer means of expression, and is a more subtle medium in which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul. Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way than by this simile. The great difficulty is that the germ must appear at a favorable moment, the rest goes of itself. It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.”

    (Just for reference, “shriving” is defined as “the act of confessing sins, or of hearing a confession and prescribing penance, or granting absolution”)

    “In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant, the striking of the clock, reminding me that it is time to leave off. Dreadful, indeed, are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again — often in vain.”

    “In such cases cool head work and technical knowledge have to come to my aid. Even in the works of the greatest master we find such moments, when the organic sequence fails and a skillful join has to be made, so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole. But it cannot be avoided. If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments. It is already a great thing if the main ideas and general outline of a work come without any racking of brains, as the result of that supernatural and inexplicable force we call inspiration.”

  7. Leonard Cohen:

    ” [A song] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

    If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.

    Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines. “

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