Art’s ambition

Its the year 2139, ten years into the war with an alien insect race, and human resistance has faltered. There are just a handful of safe zones that have not been overrun.

Johnson straps into the harness of the one technology that has made survival even a glimmer of possibility. The tech doctors check the connections and monitor his output levels. The readout starts scrolling on the monitors. For seven years at least Johnson has given his best each and every shift. The Intention Translator has turned all his nastiest intentions into reality, and this alone has kept the ravening hoard from the gates. Otherwise, Old Chicago can kiss its a-s goodbye.

Dr Evangeline smiles down at him as the ‘nasties’ start flowing into existence just beyond the far perimeter, engaging with the advance elements of mechanized insect units. Johnson’s twelve hour shift has begun.


A warning light flashes briefly on Evangeline’s screen. She checks Johnson’s vitals. Nothing out of place. But as she leans over him she hears an unexpected sound. Johnson’s stomach is rumbling.

Warning claxons blare overhead as the stream of ‘nasties’ doing battle with the alien invaders is suddenly replaced with first a giant Big Mac, then a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and next a Krystal burger.

“My God!” screams Evangeline, “He’s thinking about food! If he can’t keep his mind on nasty intentions we are doomed!” Pandemonium breaks loose as the entire defense complex prepares for an immediate emergency evacuation.

Then, from the corner of her eye, Evangeline notices something different on the huge screens displaying the conflict: The aliens have stopped their advance. They are all eating the burgers. As the red warning lights strobe in the chaos Evangeline turns and sees a thing she had almost forgotten was possible, even as part of her deepest dreams: The aliens are retreating!

Within the week all aliens have taken to their ships and departed the solar system. He’s done it! Johnson has won the war!

Heh, heh…..

So the previous post explored an idea that what makes art ‘art’ is a specific sort of intention, maybe just the intention for something to be ‘art’. Perhaps things like that get said for good reasons, based on what one has thought about the power of intentions and the idea of art. It sure seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? Except that if you look at the nature of intentions more closely you can see that they are generally superfluous. They fly all over the map, and they often have very little to do with results. They don’t always have staying power. Other people get different things from what we intended. Sometimes they are necessary, yes, but not always.

The difficulty is that intentions are part of conscious behavior, and the link between what we are thinking in the moment and what actually happens is often a bit tenuous. Never mind that what you are intending and what the rest of the world sees is not always on the same page. You might say that intentions are only really alive in the mind of the person intending. The situation for art is generally more complex than the influence of simple intentions.

Results are complicated by a number of things. For instance, we change our intentions, we have bizarrely unrealistic intentions, and there are a host of unintended consequences to almost all of even our most important actions. Never mind that we are subject to influences that are beyond our conscious control or even awareness. Many of the better things we do happen on auto pilot (in other words, without our consciously intending them). Intention is similar to our ability to pay attention: We have a limited capacity, and deal with competing demands to focus in the ‘right’ place. It wavers from one thing to the next. It can be undone by the next intention in line…….

I could talk about intentions all day. In fact, I practically did. Then I changed my mind and erased eleven whole paragraphs of rambling. The intention that started this post was to talk about art’s ambition. If that intention got compromised along the way, perhaps the ambition for it survived. And that seems like an interesting point. A good illustration of the difficulty we are faced with too……

‘Ambition’ seems like a related word. What about that? How are ambitions different from intentions?

Well, I think it is safe to say that many fine artists have the ambition to be ‘fine artists’. Whereas intention is in the conscious moment, and thereby subject to radical and instantaneous change, ambition is a slow burner that can be present beneath the surface when we are doing other things. We say that we intend to eat a cone of chocolate ice cream after dinner, but when we get to the shop and see they have 52 flavors plus daily specials we change our intentions and get one scoop of the coconut and one of the blueberry cheesecake. Intentions are like that. They flicker in our mind’s eye as we are drawn first one way and then another.

We can intend to eat a skyscraper. Briefly, perhaps, and maybe because something got us all riled up about it. There is no accounting for what we can intend given the right frame of mind. In a calm moment we can think better of it. Or we can get distracted and now intend to yell at the stranger who splashed mud on us as he drove through the puddle next to where we were standing.

But what if I had the ambition to eat that skyscraper? What would that mean? Well, I might wait long enough for the city to tear it down and then go to the site and grab some rubble and fine dust to sprinkle on my breakfast cereal. I could walk in the building each day and strip some of the wallpaper to chew on. Or I could go the easy route and start with the freestanding things like pencil erasers and potted plants.

Ambitions are less in the moment and more a sign of commitment, no matter how bizarrely we direct those ambitions.

Ambitions differ from intentions in that they are not necessarily conscious and that the duration they have is not measured by how well we are paying attention to them. The ambition to be a fine artist may, for instance, involve going to school, graduating with good enough grades and a decent portfolio that they will admit you to grad school, finishing grad school without having gone insane, and then parlaying the connections you made to introductions into the professional field, and, of course, bedding in with the art market and developing a brand that makes the work acceptable to the relevant gatekeepers. That’s one way of doing it, for sure. A very well trod and clearly delineated path for ambition to take us. We see the ends we want and the means are presented to us in prepackaged form. “How appealing!” some might say.

The interesting thing is that none of that need apply. That’s not the only way to become ‘an artist’. Its not necessary to drink the cool aid to make decent art. We don’t need institutional sanctioning for what we are doing creatively to be seen as or in fact to be art. And more importantly, we don’t have to ‘play the game’ at all. One sort of ambition about art will definitely take the acolytes through the system and smooth the rough edges, manicure all their habits and skills into officially sanctioned ‘art’. That’s what the institution does so well: It gives you ‘Art’.

But the odd thing is that art seems to also happen outside the official corridors. The ambition for art doesn’t always aim at the ‘art game’ that seems to define some professionalized ideas about it. Amazing photographers have been discovered with troves of previously unseen work. Poets have kept their poems hidden in drawers and random boxes in closets. Novelists have written obsessively for their own benefit and never shown their work to people beyond close family. Painters have been consumed by painting and yet never sold enough (or cared to sell enough) to keep them from starving……..

The point being that the ambition for art is sometimes less about the infrastructure of the arts game, its rules and its police, and occasionally more about the work itself, that the person is trying their best to do their best, is exploring the fruits of their unique imagination and perspective on the world, and that they are driven by the need to see where all this expression is going.

It doesn’t necessarily ‘make one an artist’ that we can sell a piece or two. The ideal of a professional can’t be what hangs us up. What makes us artists is that we care enough about our practice that it simply needs to get done. The ambition to be an artist isn’t always the ambition to be a ‘professional’ who makes their livelihood doing it. Its not just the ambition to get hung in a gallery, entombed on a pedestal. Its not simply the ambition to look up the official definition of ‘art’ and do that. Sure, that’s one great way to do it. That specific ambition can be rightly honored. But it isn’t necessary.

Nor is it the only way of doing things. Art happens all around us. It doesn’t need the sanctioning of gatekeepers. The ambition for art is more about who we are and what we want to leave behind for the world. Its the ambition to change the world by expressing ourselves. Artists express themselves creatively. This is the ambition behind what we do. It pours out from the hidden corners of our being. And we don’t need people to listen, necessarily. At the very least the small corner of the world we inhabit has changed. If we are doing the best we can, then we ourselves have changed.

Something I always try to tell my students is that the pottery projects they are working on are all very interesting, but the real project they have is to mold themselves into better creators: The real project they are working on is themselves.



Does that sound like something we can get behind? Forget the destiny of individual art objects: What is more important is what happens to us. That, my friends, seems to be the real ambition for art: Discover who we are as thinking creating beings. Discover it through learning better how to express ourselves. If we do that right, how can we not end up with art?

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, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Art’s ambition

  1. Francis Bacon says:

    “Of course I suffer. Who doesn’t? But I don’t feel I’ve become a better artist because of my suffering, but because of my willpower, and the way I worked on myself. There is a connection between one’s life and one’s work — and yet, at the same time, there isn’t. Because, after all, art is artifice, which one tends to forget. If one could make out of one’s life one’s work, then the connection has been achieved. In a sense, I could say that I have painted my own life. I’ve painted my own life’s story in my own work — but only in a sense. I think very few people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that the painting is an expression of the artist’s mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.”

    “When one is right inside the work … it’s very stimulating and exciting, because that’s when you bring things nearer to the nervous system. you must understand that I don’t paint for anybody except myself. I’m always very surprised that anybody wants to have a picture of mine. I paint to excite myself, and make something for myself. I can’t tell you how amazed I was when my work started selling!”

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Awesome. The Gillies Worldview further explicated. I really liked this one.

    And is it just me or are you getting more humorous here? (Or, perhaps I should say, do you have the ambition and/or the intention to get more humorous here?) I grinned at the sci-fi intro. Laughed at: “Or I could go the easy route and start with the freestanding things like pencil erasers and potted plants.” Snorted at: “…finishing grad school without having gone insane.” Nice work.

    One of my theoretical hobbyhorses is that your ideas are only as good your ability to execute them; that a sketchbook full of ideas is essentially worthless unless you can do something with it. So I read part of this substituting the word “idea” for the word “intention” and it works pretty well, too.

    But I digress.

    • Thanks Scott!

      Actually, I wrote this shortly after that exchange we had about the fun you seem to have when you write more ‘literary’ posts for your blog. I couldn’t stop myself from diverting into silliness though. The recent posts had all been so very serious and I thought my own perspective on things could use a thorough scrubbing. At least the first part is me having fun with ideas 🙂

      I think you are onto something important, but I wouldn’t be so casual about trashing that sketchbook.

      The way I see it is that even expressing those ideas in the sketchbook is part of the evolution of your own thinking, The ideas may not have been executed in the realm of material things but they have a certain conceptual execution. That counts for something. The trick is to not get hung up in the material manifestations as the only source of value. As much as I might disown my Philosophy upbringing I can’t claim it was an entire waste. Yet nothing much in the world got changed by me ‘doing’ Philosophy. I am the thing that changed. Ideas matter. Reading a book matters. Listening to music matters. Anything that connects one part of your experience with another is an opportunity for growth.

      What I would actually say is that its not properly an idea unless its been expressed in some way to some extent. Thinking is an action, and ideas are activities we put ourselves through. What we do with them proves their worth. Sometimes most of our ideas are support networks for select ideas that find resolution in the material plane. Ideas can also operate behind the scenes as it were. So even daydreaming is an execution of sorts. That mental activity can be as simple as connecting two ideas in our mind. Eureka! Sometimes the change that matters is the change within ourselves…….. We get to see things differently.

      Which is why I am adamant that art and all creative expression is a challenge of self discovery.

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Oh yeah, I think ‘doing’ the sketchbook can be very worthwhile; I do so myself, although less than I used to, and when I taught intro to ceramics it was always a requirement.

        I just disagree with the common practice of treating the results like they’re made of solid gold. A book full of old ideas is just kind of a book full of old ideas. Too your point about the transitive nature of intent, the stuff in that sketchbook isn’t going to hold the answer to all future problems. It might even cause some.

        There’s a joke that goes something like: What’s the difference between a Million Dollar Idea and a One Dollar Idea? $999,999 worth of execution.

        • Yeah, sketchbooks have a whole mythology that we need to undo to see things properly. The ‘solid gold’ ideas that get preserved there take on a life of their own, a sort of golem constructed from the cast off and idle doodling that we so often engage in. (Secret: I never sketch on paper. Never have never will. All my sketching is in the clay itself)

          That joke unfortunately prejudices us in favor of the material manifestation. You couldn’t make that joke in a non-capitalist/industrial society. We first world cogs often treat ideas as just one of many consumer goods. The joke depends on that, and I’m not buying into it if I can help myself…………..

          What would things look like if ideas were not treated as property? Austin Kleon urges artists to steal, but what if we were not so possessive about our ideas? Proprietary intellectual rights be damned! Seth Godin seems to think the Linux model has some promise. What is your take?

          One other tangent this reminds me of is our willingness to let other people say it for us, famous people especially. Since you just posted some great quotes on your blog you know whereof I speak. There seems power in the thoughts of others. We sometimes give them more credit than ourselves if we had come up with the words on our own. We seem to like others doing the heavy lifting for us…….. This was going somewhere, I swear!

          I suppose I could ramble on for ages, but I’m still not sure what it means. Seems relevant, though…… Any ideas?

  3. Tom H. Johnson, Jr. says:

    Here’s to Johnson stomach rumbles. Cheers.

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