Bonzo was here

Two commenters on a recent post mentioned that the idea of signing/stamping your work sometimes gets tied up with feelings about one’s legacy. And I can’t fault anyone who looks into the abyss and wonders “will any of it have mattered?” Leaving your mark is, on one level, a lunge back from the void to claim some meaning for our lives. “Yes, I will be remembered. Not just what I did but that I did it.”

I have been contemplating mortal thoughts the last several years, so I can relate to this. “How will I be remembered? Will I be remembered? For how long?” The people that knew us personally will carry us in their thoughts for a time, maybe throughout their lives. Our children’s children will have a memory of us as they were growing up. Their children will hear stories of their parents grandparents. But after that its all by proxy of what we have left behind. Will the world be a better place because we once trod here? We lived and laughed, but after the laughter’s gone will what we contributed have any lasting power? How did we change things? Where did we take a stand? What waves did we stand on the crest of? On what ground did we sacrifice ourselves so that the future had something different, perhaps more decent, to build on?

As artists I’m sure that many of us feel we are helping to make the world a better place by adding new beauty to the register of human insight. We see the world in ways that are not always obvious. We have to work to birth the fruits of our imagination. We toil in ever deeper mines to bring forth our precious ore. And after we are gone, often this will be our lasting impression made on the world: “Bonzo was here”

History has recorded the names and deeds of many people. Famous people. Fame is exactly that: People who never knew you personally know something about who you were and what you did. Is it any wonder we have such a fascination with celebrity? Is it any wonder many of us are instinctively drawn to the spotlight? To give our best performances on the biggest stages and to receive the adulation of the masses? Is it any wonder that our eyes and interests are drawn to the shiny people and the pageantry of their lives?

But like most things human, its complicated. There is another side to that equation. As natural as it sometimes can be to have fears for how we will be remembered, there are those who are less interested in making a name for themselves than in what they can contribute, in however small a way. To live a simple life. To live a decent life. Not everyone seeks out the limelight. Not everyone looks for recognition and the accolades of public triumph. Sometimes its not the lasting legacy that motivates us but making things better right here right now. We change the lives of these people, though they might never remember who it was that brightened their day, who it was that encouraged them in the tough times, who it was that stood by them when all else failed. Sometimes small deeds are just as important as filling the spotlight…..

On the other hand, great deeds can, perhaps, only be done in the spotlight. The public eye transmits even small actions into powerful messages. The spotlight is a magnifying instrument for our deeds, and greatness can even be demonstrated in how far ranging the effects are. That so many were affected rather than often what it actually was….

Sometimes we simply need people to step up to the plate and show us how to do it. Sometimes we can’t make changes unless someone is willing to stand before the howling mob and explain new truths to them. Take their insults and abuse and continue the fight. I’m thinking of Martin Luther King. I’m thinking of heroes we should remember. I’m thinking of the people whose lives were an example of the larger things that mattered. And sometimes being able to put a name on those lives makes it more real. “If Martin could do it, then so, perhaps, can I.”

Our culture also celebrates artists. These days the celebration is more for the ones who make the grand splash than artists in general. We tend to celebrate the ‘genius’ artists rather than cast our support for the possibility of art in our culture. As if only prestige mattered. As if only the ‘game changers’ make a difference….

That’s one problem with our society. We are gawkers after celebrity. We are hypnotized by the spectacle. And to be remembered long after you are gone it sometimes seems more important how outrageously you did things than the quality you brought to the world. More often, however, its simply that you made it to the top, whatever you did to get there (sometimes nothing especially special). It might seem that the recognition of a person’s deeds was rewarded by celebrity, but these days celebrity itself is rewarded. Its not that the reward is getting to the big stage, but that getting to the big stage is itself rewarded. Here’s why:

“The arts labor market has been called one of the oldest examples of a “winner-take-all” economy, a term popularized by Robert Frank and Philip Cook in their 1995 book, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. The hallmark of this kind of market is extreme income inequality, whereby a small number of the bright, talented, and fortunate generate the majority of economic value. Case in point: according to the New York Times, 56 percent of all concert revenue in 2003 flowed to just a handful of pop music stars like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. That left less than half the year’s proceeds to be divided amongst all other performers.” Jena Lee, Artists Not Alone In Steep Climb To The Top

There is a divide between what we see as the value of a person’s character and the value of a person’s personality. These days we think better of the charisma of personality. Being seen, standing out from the crowd, being recognized all trump quietly doing the right thing, not drawing attention to one’s self in performing good deeds, anonymously making a difference. But the balance of these values has simply shifted from what society once held as the norm.

“To some extent, we’ve always had an admiration for extroversion in our culture. But the extrovert ideal really came to play at the turn of the 20th century when we had the rise of big business. Suddenly, people were flocking to the cities, and they were needing to prove themselves in big corporations, at job interviews and on sales calls. …

“We moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character to a culture of personality. During the culture of character, what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking. Abraham Lincoln is the embodiment of the culture of character, and people celebrated him back then for being a man who did not offend by superiority. But at the turn of the century, when we moved into this culture of personality, suddenly what was admired was to be magnetic and charismatic.

“At the same time, we suddenly had the rise of movies and movie stars. Movie stars, of course, were the embodiment of what it meant to be a charismatic figure. So, part of people’s fascination with these movie stars was for what they could learn from them and bring with them to their own jobs.” Susan Cain from an NPR interview (for more insight please check out Susan’s book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking‘, pages 21 – 33)

I’m not going to say its wrong to search for a kind of immortality. Are we not grateful that so many larger than life figures have stepped on to the stage and thrilled and entertained us? Its not wrong to admire the good ones, and in admiring them admit those values to our own efforts. Everybody growing up wants to be a rock star or a princess. We want to be found special in a world filled with ordinary. The danger I see is that we forget that the ordinary has value too. Sure charisma is great, but so too is quiet humility. Sure celebrity is a wonderful platform for delivering important messages, but the intimate personal difference that quiet actors can accomplish out of the spotlight is impossible to do without. We need the humble patrons of simplicity and character.

That’s my message.

But I’ll end with this fascinating video clip from Nobel winning Physicist Richard Feynman to remind us of the downside of prestige.

This next clip overlaps part of the first, but at 2:41 he explains his personal regrets of living with the publicity his accomplishments brought him. The latter part of the clip is from just weeks before his death, so maybe its good insight on his feelings toward his own legacy….

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Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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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, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Bonzo was here

  1. Great post and great advice! Peace Carter!

  2. naomi says:

    There was a movement a few decades back for history to concentrate on day to day life of the masses instead of major events and individuals. I remember something about ‘filling in the space between the stars.’ (Trying to find something about it I find “Big History” which is pretty interesting.) I tend toward a balance of both. We want to matter, we want to make a difference, we want to be remembered – most of us. For some reason most need a particular point, person, event, to mark memories. I do, even as I realize life doesn’t move in a line, it is just the easiest perception. I am at my center filling in gaps as I age, hoping by the time I die I’ve reached some degree of completion. I hope the pieces I make affect others, provoke thought, persist and influence. I worry sometimes they’re trite, decorative, that I should make functional as at least that work does something.

    As usual, your post is thought provoking, and I’ll need to read it several times, and forward it to a few others to do the same. Just two more thoughts/memories this post brought up. First, when I was a child, thirteen, I had a dream of living with a group in the woods. They asked me to stay but I said I wanted to be rich and famous. They told me if I lived with them, I’d have as much as I helped others to collect and make; being rich just meant being surrounded by a lot of stuff that wasn’t really mine. They said I’d be loved by as many as I loved; being famous just meant a lot of people recognized my face. I told them I needed to think about it and woke up. Secondly, after Katrina and the Flood here in New Orleans, I was at the dentist’s office about a year later (still no landlines at that point). An old woman was in the waiting room too, and we began talking about our experiences. She told me she was a widow, the last of her family and her husband’s, and that she lost everything when her house flooded. She said it wasn’t that her possessions were worth much, but they were the record of her family and she was old and she knew she did not have much time left and when she died it would be as though none of them ever existed. Her voice caught, she gasped back a sob and as much as I wanted to rush over and hold her it was better to let her yank it back, pull herself together and hold it in. Every person counts, every memory, every day of everyone’s life. I try to listen and make sure the other knows I heard. Too often I’m not successful, but that’s one of my main quests.

  3. akismet-d6e2243cc724dd2aa7e2be4414ae7d13 says:

    It seems that you are suggesting that fame and celebrity are the same as legacy. They are not. Some famous people do leave a legacy, Gandhi and Edison for example, but they are the exception. In pottery I think of Val Cushing as a potter who was known but not really famous However, what he did was so important to so many of us, even if we don’t realize it, he has left a legacy that should continue for a long time. Legacy has to do with how you touch the generations that come after you not how popular you are.

    Signing a pot is not about wanting to be famous or to become a celebrity, it’s just a way to say you exist. Would you rather buy a piece of pottery from a store with no idea who made it or would you prefer to meet the person who made it. I have made and sold pots for over 40 years and one experience that has happened many times is, I will be selling at fair or maybe restocking my work in a gallery and a person will come up to me and say “I got one of your pieces as a gift many years ago, it is so nice to finally meet the person who made it.” Sometime the only connection of me to the work and it’s new owner is my signature. Having them finally close the loop with that meeting means a lot to both of us. It’s also a part of my legacy.

    • Of course, of course, of course they are not the same thing. That’s not what I was suggesting at all. The idea with the Feynman videos is that you can leave a lasting legacy through humility, and that there is pr0bably something very wrong with chasing fame. Like most things human the idea of our legacy is complicated. And I think some folks DO treat it as being measured by popularity. Human minds often get tangled up in one sort of vanity or another, and to pretend this never happens is missing one significant path that many people tread. (For the first few years of this blog I was obsessed with how many clicks my posts got, and on facebook it always seems a letdown when the things you post are not given at least a few ‘like’s or comments. Its a weakness I have struggled to overcome…..)

      But I’m with you, personally. I would like people to know that I existed, and I want there to be some value left in the world that I was responsible for. I don’t want to speak for others as much as I was simply throwing out possibilities for folks to think about. Draw your own conclusions for what matters to you. If there’s one thing I have learned its that human lives are filled with hypocrisy. Maybe ‘filled’ is too strong a word and maybe ‘hypocrisy’ is over the top. Lets just say that most humans are conflicted at various points in their lives. And we feel differently from one day to the next, sometimes about even core issues. So I wasn’t really trying to have the last word on “human legacy”. I was just poking around from unfamiliar angles to see if anything interesting showed up.

      The fascinating thing is that the signature is not always necessary for identification purposes. That’s why this was the follow up post to the one where I talked about Liz Lurie and Simon Levin pots being unsigned. So its complicated. And I think the loop with your customer would perhaps have been closed in a number of other possible ways without the signature, Unless, of course, your work was entirely unrecognizable from one kiln load to the next! Now maybe a signature would help there! (But then this is also the question from that previous post about the challenges of identity). So it really is complicated. The issue, at least. Maybe for folks like Gandhi, Edison, and Cushing it was simple. But maybe that’s more a testament to the power of their convictions and their single minded pursuit of specific values. My wager is that not everyone else has it that ‘easy’. My guess is that not everyone has clear ideas about why they do what they do, and that for most of us if we have thought about our legacy the way we are looking at it differs from most other folks out there. There are plenty of ways to look at it……

      Thanks for chiming in! I agree with you personally for the most part 🙂

  4. akismet-d6e2243cc724dd2aa7e2be4414ae7d13 says:

    Other than the fact that I try to make work to a particular standard it might be hard for someone to identify all my work. I’m working in a mode of improvisation. Most of the time I’m not sure what I will be making when I sit down to throw a pot.

    I center.
    I open it up.
    I start pulling it up.
    Mostly I listen with my fingers and I watch with my eyes.
    Sometimes it’s the music.
    The clay tells me where it wants to go.
    From there I work on variations of the theme of the first piece.

    My other world is composing music. There again I mostly listen and let the music take me where it will. It’s not any particular style, there’s jazz, there’s rock, there’s classical, there’s guitars, strings and horns.

    I find that working this way in both music and pottery is inspirational and very challenging. But it also challenges the people that listen to my music or look at my pottery. Hopefully it will help to open up new ideas and creative ways of thinking for both myself and the people who like my work.

    • That’s awesome!

      This is something I mostly aspire to as well. I do have very strong preferences these days (I don’t really like bulbous forms, and I really do love showing the marks of the rib tool on the exterior wall), but like you I try to let each piece of clay have something of its own voice.

      Interestingly this attitude led me to the belief that I was not strictly entitled to put my signature on the pots since the pot was more a collaboration with the clay and other influences than simply me engineering a pot. That was the first reason I had to step back from the idea of signing my work, and the compromise I chose was to have a meaningless stamp used instead. As you read in that previous post I have since started questioning even that mark of identity.

      I guess its a question we each have to answer in our own ways…..

      I love the attitude you are creating with! And I think you are onto something valuable in challenging the audience this way.

      One last thought. Another reason why signing work might be a compromise is that the audience sometimes looks at the signature first and the pot second. Sometimes they don’t really even look at the pot if they know who its by. Leaving that identity sometimes is an easy way out for an audience rather than helping to challenge it. Wouldn’t it be interesting if audiences looked at the pot itself exclusively and in detail rather than fitting it into ideas about the reputation and worth of the maker? Don’t we sometimes want them to SEE the work we are presenting in this way? Knowing who a pot is by often creates a mental shortcut that folks use to avoid actually coming to grips with the actual work in front of them. That seems like it should interest us as well…..

      Thanks again for chiming in!

      Cheers!

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