What art and toilets have in common

(Another example of why the instrumental argument for arts advocacy misses the point)

“There may be no greater evidence that increasing arts in schools won’t create more arts patrons/lovers than the fact people in India won’t use toilets.” Joe Pattifrom his blog post ‘You Can Build A Toilet, But You Can’t Make Me Use It!’

"You can lead a man to a toilet but you can't make him pee"

“You can lead a man to a toilet but you can’t make him pee”

This is the response I gave in the comments on Joe’s blog:

The scenario is the old ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ dilemma. But lets not get stuck too much on the lack of causality from leading to doing: If you don’t get that horse to the water but leave it in the desert it WILL die of thirst. What more art in schools provides is opportunity, and the issue of transforming that opportunity into activity is another question.

The case you bring up shows many of the hurdles that we face in nurturing new arts enthusiasts. At its root, the move in that direction always seems balked by our own sense of identity, who we think we are, what we customarily do, and what we believe. Getting folks to buy into the value of art isn’t a simple problem.

How do you come to believe in the arts? Well, some folks grow up with it and never question its role in their lives. It can be as natural as speaking their mother tongue. But if you have no exposure to art you are an outsider, art is by definition something foreign. You are not just being led to water, you have no idea where you are being led. Art can be unintelligible, and that’s not an easy place to start building enthusiasm.

So how does art come to make sense to us? Well, imagine we were talking about a sport, or a game. If you look at it as an outside observer you can eventually pick up the rules. You might even become a fan. You can also read instruction books and look at videos. All these indirect measures are ways that folks can come to appreciate things like games, sport, and even art. Sometimes we are struck by something new and it resonates enough with us that we develop an appreciation.

But what if we start learning the activity by our own involvement? What if you start kicking a soccer ball yourself, start playing bridge or poker with your friends, or start painting or throwing pots on a wheel? Sure, folks will probably still have to explain some of the rules to you, but the learning is much more direct. And the outcome is not just that we are a fan of soccer, that we are a fan of bridge, a fan of painting, but that we are soccer players, bridge players, and painters ourselves. By doing it ourselves we have changed something fundamental about who we think we are. And maybe that’s the most important transition to make.

There is no guarantee that kids learning to paint will cause them to become professional painters later in life, that they will still have an affinity for paintings, or that they will support painting as a worthwhile activity, but its not a stretch to connect the dots that if you are a painter in some sense, painting has value for you. The trick is that folks not see themselves as just ‘doing art’ but that they see in themselves the creative potential for art. The thing that needs to happen is that we teach more people about the art within themselves. We need to show folks that art isn’t simply the stuff that other people do but that it has practical meaning in our own lives as well.

There is plenty of support for the arts outside of artists, but no one supports it like the artists themselves. If you had to ask who was more likely to enjoy and support the arts, a cop, a farmer, a lawyer or a painter, is there a reason you’d not intuitively pick the painter? If you were to survey folks who self identify as artists whether they enjoy and support the arts would you ever get less than 100% response? “I’m an artist but I don’t support art”? Wouldn’t that response point to a fundamental disconnect in personal identity?

Toilets in rural India are a tough sell because folks there don’t see themselves as people who use toilets. When you put it like that it sounds simple. And its also clear that what they are being asked to do is not as seemingly easy as just getting them to employ a new technology in an everyday activity. Its not as simple as asking a person who writes with a pencil to start using a pen. It might relate more to asking a person who writes with a pencil to start using a keyboard. The technology is not itself identity neutral. We need to understand the same nuance about art too: To be agnostic about art is to not be an artist ourselves…….


The typical kitchen cupboard of a potter:

Look at all those lovely cups, mugs, and bowls! Its true that I made a few of them, but my kitchen and my life are filled with my support for the work of other potters. Their brilliance lights the way for my own creative efforts.

Look at all those lovely cups, mugs, and bowls! Its true that I made a few of them, but my kitchen and my life are filled with my support for the work of other potters. Their brilliance lights the way for my own creative efforts.

“A rule stands there like a signpost. – Does the signpost leave no doubt about the way I have to go? Does it show which direction I am to take when I have passed it, whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country? But where does it say which way I am to follow it; Whether in the direction of its finger or (for example) in the opposite one? – And if there were not a single signpost, but a sequence of signposts or chalk marks on the ground – is there only one way of interpreting them? – So I can say that the signpost does after all leave room for doubt. Or rather, it sometimes leaves room for doubt, and sometimes not. And now this is no longer a philosophical proposition but an empirical one.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (85)

In other words, culture isn’t self explanatory but makes sense in the context of people for whom it matters. Art, rural toilets, what have you: Everything represents value only to the extent that it factors as a part of a way of life.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

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, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What art and toilets have in common

  1. gz says:

    how to get the non-making ‘man in the street’ to think like a maker,and be willing to buy handmade work of whatever kind….

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