Why craftsmanship is like grammar

So, I’ve been droning on and on and on and on about quality and objectivity, and its almost hard for me to add to that pile of barely digestible gristle. But I’m gonna do it anyway! 🙂 Get your fork and knife out and put your dentures back in! There might just be some nutrition in there somewhere if you chew hard enough!

Anyway… last week a series of conversations on facebook took turns at praising and dismissing craftsmanship in art. Mostly good stuff and keen observations. One person made the connection that material manifestations of craftsmanship in art are similar in kind to craftsmanship in the expression of ideas in language. After all, art is but one means of expressing ideas, and as such can be viewed as a sort of language in its own right. As far as art and all creativity is expressive, as far as it strives to communicate, art seems to rely on principles similar to conventional spoken language to do this.

For instance, you want to get an idea across, and the audience is familiar with how, say, ideas in Impressionist painting, are conveyed. To do so well, to succeed in getting the ideas across there is a minimum of craftsmanship required to make the case. The rules in Impressionist painting are not necessarily the same as for other types of painting, but once you understand how meaning is made Impressionistically, how it is conveyed, then you can make sense of very many things painted that way. Just as in verbal communication, if you know what verbs and nouns are, know how to put them together with other parts of speech, can order things in such a way that the right meaning is manifest, then your craftsmanship has done its job. To do so poorly, where meaning is obscure or poorly reflects its intention, well, that is another question.

We have no trouble when its done right. Meaning strikes us as obvious when its clear. When we see what the meaning is, when we’ve harvested all there is and made proper sense of it, then there is what seems like a consensus of meaning. The conventions of grammar have made communication possible such that everyone who understands them is relatively on the same page. And this happens so often in our native tongue that it seems a model for the things themselves, the things we are talking about, that objective reality is truly revealed in the agreement of so many minds. When language becomes second nature to us we have very little reason to doubt this agreement and conformity with the world. It seems all so very matter of fact. This is how language works (when it works).

But when things go wrong it becomes a question of precisely which part has broken down. Its hard to say that the objective reality behind statements has suddenly shifted, so the blame often switches to the communication itself. If the art seems poorly made, if it fails to convey any reasonable meaning to us, well, it can seem like the inarticulate fumblings of small children who have yet to learn proper grammatical construction. Sometimes if we can tease out meaning, we say its despite the poor grammatical structure. And art that speaks nonsense seems exactly the sort of mangled expression that most children are responsible for as they are learning the ropes.

Except its not. Art that doesn’t make sense to us isn’t always guilty of poorly expressed ideas as much as they are expressing things we either can’t get our heads around or in ways that we are incapable of coming to grips with. From our own expectations of ‘correct’ grammar, that is. We would prefer to blame the failure of communication on the insufficiency of the conveyance than the inadequacy of its reception. We lose the trail of tedious drawn out sentences, and big words blow right over us. Slang is sometimes a move in the game we have not adequately mastered. Colloquialisms and awkward dialect catch us off guard. Outside our native comfort zone where communication happens as naturally as… second nature, we are suddenly in unfamiliar waters and our tiny rowboat seems threatened by mysterious heaving seas. Oh yeah, and weird metaphors can derail our little red wagon.

Which can seem a bit more clear if we make the comparison with being dropped in a foreign country. If we do not speak the same language it can seem as if the natives are all making crazy nonsense with their noisily flapping gums. How can you comprehend the incomprehensible? They utter a baffling string of almost indiscernible gobbledygook. Its a weltering torrent of complete gibberish. Blathering balderdash. Gibbering jabber. Fudged flummery. Waffling palaver. Scrambled mumbo jumbo. Bamboozling fiddle-faddle…… It just seems like non-sense.

Except its not. In a foreign country we have not simply landed among the insane. They may not make sense to us, but quite clearly they make sense to each other. We are not lost among the savages as much as we are unprepared for their cultural sensibilities. And this often goes well beyond the language itself to the world that is imbued with its nuance.

And if you turn the circle fully back to art, perhaps you can see that our own incomprehension is not automatically a sign that the artist has gotten something wrong. That arrogance is poorly placed. The manifest destiny of our own point of view on things is a bill of goods not everyone wants to pay for.

The question is, if craftsmanship is like grammar, if sense is only possible with craftsmanship, what are we missing when art seems to us uncraftsmanlike? If it makes sense to whoever made it, what is the language they are speaking and what is the grammar they are using? If we are talking about more than the awkward fumblings of beginners, those who know not what they do, where do we find the sense in seemingly senseless expressions? How do we learn to make meaning rather than simply saying that it has failed to meet the standards of our own ways of meaning? How else but to learn to meet it on its own terms.

Cut to scene:

The American family of tourists has just crash landed in the tiny village in the Malawian countryside, wearing festive Hawaiian shirts, and comfy sandals with bright white socks. With cameras and video recorders strung around the parents necks and children chasing each other around and throwing things at each other, they loudly discuss where they will get their next Big Macs from while the petulant teenager ignores the commotion and bewildered stares of the yokels, barely looks up from her diligent texting and the insulation of blaring top 40 music in her ear buds. The Father shouts at everyone and no one, “Anybody around here spreken sie English?”

Bert and Edna Spleenblock from Galveston TX admire the native curiosities and the authentic performance the idol worshiping savages are putting on. "Hey Bert! What's that big cauldron they are putting over the fire? Those look like short carrots they are dicing, but they sure are tough to cut! I smell an authentic native stew! Do you think they will invite us for dinner?"

Bert and Edna Spleenblock from Galveston TX admire the native curiosities and the ‘authentic’ performance the idol worshiping savages are putting on. “Hey Bert! Check out that big cauldron they are putting over the fire. Its big enough to take a bath in! Those look like short carrots they are dicing, but the local vegetables sure are pasty pink and tough to cut! I smell an authentic native stew! Do you think they will invite us for dinner? Now where did the children wander off to? I can hear them screaming. Bill, at least……”

Lots to chew on, I know! Hopefully there is at least a bit of nutritious food for thought among the bones, the gristle, and the undercooked half baked and poorly seasoned waffling (it sounded like waffles… and now I’m hungry again).

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

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