Week three of the Copying the Masters class was all sorts of interesting. We closed the door on Michael Simon’s pitcher and moved on to two covered jars by another local Athens potter, Brooks Burgess. (Brooks passed away a couple of years ago, and I thought it well worth remembering a truly fine potter and his work)
The live demo hit a few snags as my in class attempt at the larger of the two jars fizzled after attempt after attempt came up short in executing one of the details (Original Brooks Burgess jar upper portion in the foreground, my failure on the wheel in front of me, and my first more successful attempt from the previous day on the board to the other side of me). Here’s me ‘splainin’ something (I at least look like I know what I’m talking about 🙂 ).
But as anyone who has been listening to me over the past few years can tell, my abject failure was a pitch perfect illustration of the pitfalls of survivorship bias. Not to make excuses (okay I’ll make one: Its sometimes hard to pull off a copy of some other artist’s work on the first few tries), but as an instructional exercise, students who have to look at the effortless mastery of their instructors only get a skewed version of what it will take for their own success. If you’ve been doing it for a while it can seem a cakewalk. If you are a student who has never or only rarely tried something, the newness itself can be frustrating. Sometimes I even mess up on purpose to reassure students that their own struggles are a natural part of the process. Students can’t only learn from the way a competent professional executes a familiar process or design. Its important to learn how things can go wrong, when they can go wrong, and why.
One thing we discussed before our trek through Jarland was a distinction I had just heard the day before in a MoMA lecture given by Howard Gardner in 2009. In it Gardner references a distinction made by the Classical Music composer Arnold Shoenberg that music, art, and aesthetics can be discerned in two fundamental ways: Style and idea. What he meant was that there are broad generalizations that group certain things together, among other things genre and style, while at a more particular level there are the individual iterations within these loose categories. Distinguishing these things is not really the same activity. You can define a thing quite usefully by knowing what style it fits into, but then also make determinations that speak for this one thing alone. We are not ‘knowing’ the same thing in the same way……
I suppose that’s nothing new or revelatory, but the thing it reminded me of was that all our attempts to reproduce the Michael Simon pitcher scored near or far from the mark, but they were all identifiably ‘Michael Simon copies’. They were not, for instance, a Brooks Burgess covered jar. In the words of Big Bird and Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others” but the trick is in understanding how some things DO come to belong together. In other words, the sum of the details in each case were enough to group even the furthest stretches as still belonging to the family of Michael Simon Knock-offs.
From the standpoint of aesthetic discernment it means that some features stand out as distinguishing parts of a general stylistic identity (necessary, sufficient, conditional, and contingent criteria), while other details are idiosyncratic. Some attempts had the proportions slightly different. Some had slightly different handles. Some handle placements were original. Some spouts were defined differently. And yet, these all belong to the same family of pots: They were all made in this class with this one Michael Simon pitcher as inspiration.
So its complicated. The things that make a Dolly Parton song a country song are not what makes it a Dolly Parton song. You can hear it and know that its a country song, if you have an ear for country music, and you can hear it and know its a Dolly Parton song, if you have a sense of Dolly’s music. They are simply different skills in understanding. If you only knew Dolly’s songs but no other country music its possible you wouldn’t be able to identify Patsy Cline as belonging to the same genre. And if you have a developed sense of the genre you can hear unfamiliar artists’ songs and know where they fit. You can sometimes hear the first few notes and know exactly which song it is. You can hear the first few notes never having heard them before and know exactly what genre it belongs to. Isn’t that fascinating?
Thought experiment: What makes a Michael Simon pot a Michael Simon pot? What makes this pitcher a Michael Simon Pitcher?
As, for instance, compared to this?
And what makes both of these pots pitchers? What makes them pots? What makes them craft? Or art?
The point being that we use criteria all the time to define how we accept things in the world. Some details we gloss over when its convenient. Others we highlight. For different purposes different details stand out. Its not just one ‘thing’ we are looking at but many.
One of the notions that always helps me understand the difference of differences is Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances. The idea is that we don’t know things as much by some essential underlying unity as we know them from the loose association which gathers them together. A brother and sister may share their mother’s eyes, but the sister has her father’s ears and the brother his mother’s. They both may have their father’s nose. The father and mother share no traits in common, and yet they are all part of the same family. We group them together because this is how we make sense of them. Their solidarity, their belonging, comes after the fact, as it were. The belonging is a context (one of many possible contexts).
In other words, these are conventions. Think of ‘art’ for instance. Is it one thing or many? Are all arts connected in some consistent manner, or are some things art for some reasons while others are art for completely different reasons? What does Modern Dance have to do with Classical Baroque Painting? What does poetry have to do with pottery? What does Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 have to do with his Fountain? What does Bebop have to do with Boogie?
And yet we are not normally confused about the words ‘art’, ‘pottery’, ‘poetry’, ‘painting’, ‘dance’, etc. We know what they mean when we use these words in everyday correct ways. The mists of obfuscation descend only when we pretend there is some deeper meaning that gives sense to what we are doing….. As Wittgenstein says, “A substantive makes us look for the thing that corresponds to it.” ‘Art’ may be one word, but its not one ‘thing’ in the same sense.
What I’m pointing to is that we don’t need to see some inner truth to be able to make sense of the world. Understanding a style doesn’t mean we have some essence of that style in mind and it doesn’t mean we can account for all examples expressing it. Understanding particular things also depends on the frame of reference. What is it we are trying to understand about it? Its shape? Its color? Its texture? Its use? Its maker? How it was made?
So, to piggyback this on the end of the previous post, what we can all do better is uncovering and paying attention to the details that are presented to us. We can see better than we do. Which doesn’t mean ‘more objectively true’ vision or transparancy. Seeing better just means not being as oblivious to the potential for meaning and value…. Connect some unfamiliar dots, why dontcha?
I’ll end with an excerpt from the Gardner MoMA lecture. Moderator Paola Antonelli asks that with beauty being “so mutating and so mutable, can beauty be taught, and should it be taught?” Gardner responds:
“When you are shown two things or hear two things and you don’t see or hear the difference… and someone says ‘This is beautiful, this is worth paying attention to’ and this is not a wake up call and says something is going on and I’m not aware of it… What matters is that I hear the difference and that’s the beginning of understanding…. We ought to be sharing discriminations or distinctions which matter to us. And if they are interested, we should tell them why, and of course be open to debate” (starting around 1:31:51 of the MoMA lecture)
That’s all I’ve got!
Make beauty real!