Hacking the grammar of art

I listened to the 2nd installment of Michael Kline’s podcast interview with Nick Joerling the other day and had a fantastic time eavesdropping on these two great potters and friends. Michael does such a marvelous job of setting a relaxed conversational tone. Its almost as if you were right there with them, sitting at a table over dinner, or leaning against the bar with a beer in hand. There is a difference between formal and informal interview styles, and most of the great ones veer off into the territory that Michael is exploring. If you haven’t listened to any of the first five podcasts he’s delivered I’d like to recommend them. This is the second one with Nick Joerling:


Anyway, its interesting that an interview can be either formal or informal in the first place. They are just words being spoken, but somehow some of those words can tighten the sphincter with their chilling seriousness and others can be a warm wafting breeze on a Winter day…. Interesting, right?

The power of language to determine how we think about what we think about doesn’t always seem to get the credit it deserves. We talk about familiar things in familiar ways, and the train of our thoughts gets railroaded into the expected terrain. Using only these words and not others gives our ideas a very narrow performance. Its the confinement of bias, prejudice, preference, habit, convention, and tradition that makes the grammar of certain words only go in this direction and not others. And because the words work this way so well our minds follow obediently down the path. Our thoughts are confined to the ways that the words get used, sometimes even if the usage is painfully constrictive, inadequate, or inequitable.

But there is a trick to overriding that. We are not just the prisoners of conventional language use. Creativity is often seen as our ability to connect dots unexpectedly, and this allows us to see familiar things in new ways, but also to uncover strange new things as well. Many of those dots are visual or material where art is concerned. Or tonal and melodic where music is concerned. But there is also an art to thinking, and the edifice of literature and poetry is built on that. Its the same sort of dot connecting that Philosophers try to get away with. And when Philosophy is done right it connects those dots in ways that show the world in fascinating and unfamiliar detail.

I’ve been told that Nick Joerling studied Philosophy in school, so it doesn’t really surprise me that he can make these leaps of intuition. What he said in part of the interview with Michael is just the sort of dot connecting that good thinkers are capable of. Here’s what he said:

 “One of the questions Jack (Troy) had on his sheet was “Aren’t there already enough pots?”. And I think that’s really a great question. Its not a prescription. It doesn’t have an automatic answer. You have to answer it personally. And part of the answering is because they’re not degradable. So every time you make another pot its around for a long time. I always like that question. And a nice time for me was a few years ago we were tossing around that question with a group of us, in which ‘aren’t there already enough pots’, and the first time I heard that question I tried to change it in my head. So instead of thinking ‘aren’t there already enough pots in the world? Why add more to the pile of commodities?’ a nice moment that I had was that instead of treating it as a noun, as a thing, I thought, well instead of doing that, lets treat the question and just put adjectives in there. So instead of saying “Aren’t there already enough pots?” describe the adjectives that we want in a pot.

So as soon as you think adjectives instead of nouns you just make up a list of the things we want in pots: ‘Do we have enough imagination in the world?’, ‘Do we have enough care, like the care you want to take with pots?’, ‘Do we have enough creativity in the world?’. And it was nice for me, because as soon as I started thinking of the question in terms of of adjectives, then the answer was really obvious: We want more of all of those things. We want more of all of that good stuff that you try to get into pots. But then you don’t just stay there, immediately you go to ‘Well, then there’s the responsibility’. When you sit down to make a pot, make sure you get all of those great adjectives that we need more of in the world into the pot. And then we need more pots that carry those adjectives. I always like that when you can take a question or take how you’re used to saying something and reword it and then it changes everything about it.

Something else that was really instructional for me was years ago team teaching with Linda Christianson and at some point she was showing slides of cups and talking really beautifully about cups, and maybe the last image or two she had was cups and saucers. The thing that was really great, in the same way that we were talking about ‘enough pots’, when she got to the cup and saucer part she said “Its not enough for the cup and saucer to fit. Don’t think ‘Does the cup fit the saucer?’, but ‘Does the cup need the saucer? And does the saucer need the cup?'” And just because she phrased it in that small little way just made me (and probably everybody in the room) think so differently about cups and saucers. I just love when you change a word and all of a sudden everything about it changes.” (From the podcast starting at around 7:30)

The funny thing for me was that just a day or so before listening to that podcast with Nick and Michel I had made some very similar grammatical observations to a blogger friend who runs the innovative Art Museum in Santa Cruz California. She had just been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and the article ran a few days previously. The Museum she runs is on the cutting edge of the new model for participatory museum experience for audiences, and if anything, the WSJ represents the Old Guard of tradition and commodification that has informed most museums until recently. Her reaction to the article prompted a blog response that asked the question “Where’s the community in the crowd?” and asked her readers to suggest alternate framing for how the message of participation in the Arts and in art museums can be viewed. I’ll just paste my email response to her:

“Hey Nina,

So that was the interview you were gearing up for! I read the article and was disappointed but not surprised that the stance was so thoroughly seated in the “nothing good can come from bypassing the experts” point of view. One thing I’d like to point out is that this way of looking at things depends on art being identified mostly as objects of one sort or another. ‘Art’ is essentially a noun for these people, and that automatically calls into question how we (the public) are related to it. It becomes easy to say that if this is art, then the people who made it are the artists, and everyone else is something different. By looking at it this way, as a noun, art becomes divisive. Ordinary people only get access to art from the sanctioned dispensers and framers of art objects.

I think you are on the right path in asking us to question that division. And I think the key is to understand art not simply as a noun, but also as a verb. The verb of art means that doing certain things counts as making art. You do this and thereby you also are a maker of art. Its inclusive, because everyone has the potential to do these things. You can’t draw an easy line around the sorts of painting that are done by ‘artists’ and non artists because there really is very little different about the practice itself.

But this division is precisely what traditional museums are counting on, that the ‘art’ is the exceptional stuff. And once you recognize the verb value of ‘art’ it becomes possible to see that all forms of creativity are related. The idea of traditional museums is to hide that fact from us by treating art as only the special objects made by special people, but by making art participatory the doors are now much wider. Ordinary people have access to art not because it is mediated for them but because they can do it themselves. The verb of ‘arting’ has that power.

And I think the same change can be made in how we talk about community. The way you first phrased the question it sounded like you were asking for another noun, that community is just this thing that we belong to. I’d suggest that we start learning to treat the idea of community also as a verb. Community isn’t just the group, but the doing that makes it a group. We shouldn’t be concerned with ‘finding communities’ by looking for groups of people, but finding communities by looking at the activities that bring people together. Those activities are the community. If backgrounds give us the community we grew up in, then diverse people coming together to do new things will create new communities. Its that simple.

I have been arguing for some time now that rather than trying to find a place for art in our communities (groups of people), we should be focused on finding a place for art within ourselves. Once we discover that we ourselves are artists, then we will automatically have also found the potential for community in the fellows who share these practices with us. “You’re a painter? I’m a painter too!” Instant community.

‘The crowd’ is distanced from the real stuff that’s happening. ‘The crowd’ is separated from the art, the artists, and anything else we deem of value. They are consumers at best. The community, on the other hand, is connected. The community is oriented by what it is doing. The community is performative. The community produces value, and not simply receives it with the blessings of the authorities. Isn’t it interesting that you can live next door to a person for years and not share anything remotely communal with them? Its not the people who count in a community, its what they share, what they do together…..

I just saw a video (NCEACA’s 2014 Roundtable Discussion: Handle as Bridge: Creativity, Learning, and Purpose) that mentioned that science museums are starting to put much more emphasis on the idea of production rather than consumption. Unlike in the art world there isn’t the same sort of protectionism against the audience being personally involved in the doing of science. They obviously see that ‘to science‘ is a verb. And they also see that the community of scientifically knowledgeable people is not made simply by consuming the science work of others. You get to DO science yourself. Science is all around us in our daily lives, and you too are a part of that. Science museums celebrate that. They want more scientists. They know part of the appeal is that “Hey! I could do something like that too.”

The glass cases and velvet ropes of art museums do more than simply walling the public off from art objects physically, they also create an impassible divide between who the artists are and those who are not. And that is something we can thank the noun form of ‘art’ for. How much would be different if we learned to think of art as a verb?”

That seems like plenty to think about!

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, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Hacking the grammar of art

  1. barleyhollow says:

    Reblogged this on Barley Hollow Pottery and commented:
    This is a really interesting thread on the philosophy of art and it’s presentation. I’m reblogging it because I want you to see it and because I want it as a reminder of the participatory nature of art in the community. As a potter, I want my work to be touched, enjoyed, even taken for granted as part of daily routines and rituals. The invitation to participate, to engage, is the crux of the work for me. And this post from Carter Gillies gets at the way we use words which determines how we think about art and our realtionship to it. Give it a read. You might also like following Carter Gillies blog. Cheers!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    I totally agree about Michael’s S&D podcast. The casualness is wonderful, and it belies a really noteworthy depth. I hope his efforts are rewarded enough that it continues for a long time.

    That part of this episode jumped out at me, too. My instinctive answer was “well, the world certainly already has enough *bad* pots (including many of mine).” Which goes to what Nick said about the responsibility to try to cram in as many good things as we can when making them.

    • Amen, brother! It really makes a difference reframing it that way. I’ve always looked at art making as a moral activity. We get to shape the world to come, and we’d better show we care. That’s the big advantage of doing it by hand: Machines don’t care. Maybe the designer cared, but pooping out one same old doohickey after another hardly adds to the quality in the world. Making by hand you are actively attending to the details that will make a difference. Its the human confrontation with entropy, and unless we take that responsibility in our own hands we are putting the visual/material fate of the world in the hands of marketing gurus and focus groups…..

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