“Less theory, more work”

Someone said this to me the other day on facebook after one of my rambling attempts at thought provocation, and it took me by surprise. It bothered me the whole rest of the day. As I stood in my studio glazing pots for my next firing I wondered what exactly this person was trying to tell me. As I worked to put together that next kiln load I came up with several theories for why he said that. Its not like walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time (joke) where you can’t do both at once, so maybe its that you should shoot first and ask questions later? I had so wanted to leave a scathing reply, but I thought better of it and didn’t. Maybe I was wrong not to. In fact it bothered me so much that I was kept up at night, and maybe that’s what he meant. Maybe he meant that the only way to sleep soundly is to not worry about stuff, to not speculate, plan, judge, or consider the consequences of actions…..

Because to me ‘less theory, more work’ seems like a poor theory. If its telling us that there is a problem with theory its not that we need better theory, just less. Its saying the problem is theory itself. We need less of them, we need them to be less complicated, we need fewer people thinking them, and in all other ways they need to be diminished. Its saying that thinking is overrated. We need less thought and fewer people doing it……

As I said, its a poor theory, and if that’s the caliber of theory this person had in mind I can see why we might need less of them. But the key is that to do anything well you do have to work at it, and even thinking well takes work. If you are not very good at it, maybe that’s not a sign you should give it up, that you should do less of it, but that you should actually try harder. Maybe its a sign that you are not working hard enough at it.

Its true that the human brain did not evolve specifically to think, but it does this anyway. We can think, and so we do, but our ancient prehistoric ancestors were all doers. They were workers. And maybe its true that our thinking has gotten us into all sorts if trouble, with war, hatred, and poverty among the lists of atrocities perpetuated by people thinking poorly. But to turn back the clock won’t work either. To solve these and other issues will take more thought and better thought. Thinking may have gotten us into some of these modern troubles, but its also our best way out. Not ‘less’ theory, but better.

That’s all I’m gonna say. Something to think about, at least. Definitely something to work on.


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.
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16 Responses to “Less theory, more work”

  1. Judy Shreve says:

    I worked with clay for a number of years – enjoyed it, felt clay was the only way I wanted to express myself – took lots of classes, workshops — although I never felt that I would ever achieve the brilliance of my potter heroes, always second guessed myself – over-analyzed my work.
    I switched to earthenware and it required a different approach to surface treatment – more painterly. Up to this point, I had never considered myself a painter-artist. But the more I painted on clay and waited on the kiln to finish my drawings, the more I wanted to paint/draw. I finally gave up working on clay and began using paper and now exclusively birch panels.
    What I love about painting – is it comes entirely from me. I am very guarded against ‘paint’ classes. This 2-d work is not ‘technically’ correct. It doesn’t need to meet any functional criteria. My only goal is that it comes from my imagination — no theories, no rules – just me and the paint. It’s the first time in my over 60 years that I find total joy in my creative endeavors. Too many theories can crush creativity.
    Thankfully my paintings are selling, so I can buy more paints.

    • I love your new direction with painting (though I was sad to see you stop making pots 😦 )! Its always great to see what you’ve been doing when you share it!

      That said, I stand by my point, and if you felt like you were overwhelmed by theory, I would still say that the problem may have had more to do with poor, unnecessary, confusing, distracting, obstructional, debilitating and otherwise inappropriate theory rather than the fact of theory itself. Get the right theory and go with that! Its not the case that more equals better, but that quality matters more than quantity.

      Besides, one of the most important things to learn in any medium is training our hands to think for themselves. The language part of thinking is only a small aspect of our physical intelligence. And the distance between words and our discernment, our value judgments, is not that big a gap to cross. Our hands pick up where our words leave off, but we wouldn’t be doing these things if words didn’t matter…..

      (And I’m not saying you need to be able to explain what you are doing or that words are always necessary, just that its a different sort of arrogance that pretends to be indifferent to them as a matter of principle)

      Keep up the good work! Think good thoughts not fewer! 🙂

  2. Charles says:

    The theory is fascinating, one of the things I enjoy most about academic potters is the endless discussion of theory, to get deeply into the why of making. However, there comes a time when words fail and action becomes more important. There is a lot to be gained by doing a thing so deeply and completely there is no room for thought until the action is over. I think academics tend to the opposite, Think deeply and do a short burst of work to explore the theory, then another period of thought and reflection and another short burst of work to further develop the practice of the theory. However my guess is a majority of the potters in the world do not have the energy to devote to deep contemplation.They have a market to sustain, they have customers who expect the relationship they have established to be maintained with work that evolves slowly or not at all.

    Personally I struggle with the philosophy and theory very occasionally and often early in the morning when I am fresh and have some hopes of accessing my creativity and processing my thoughts, because late at night I think about my bone deep weariness, the 4 tons of clay that passed between my fingers last year and how it never seems like enough. How I make more pots in a week now than I did over a whole semester in school. I think about how, despite these vast numbers of pots flowing from my studio and at a price many in my area find offensively high, I still can’t keep them in stock and often I still struggle to pay the bills.

    I think this may be the line between the blue collar and the white collar in pottery. When every dollar you make is from the clay, not from the words. The more stress you are under the narrower your focus becomes.

    That said, I feel like the words are very important. One of the reasons I take the time to read your blog is because you can make me remember to think and to snap out of the work daze. This can only be good.

    • Charles, thank you for this tremendous compliment!

      I think you are spot on that attitudes towards what we are doing can differ for a number of reasons, and that some of how that falls out is how we prioritize thinking and doing. I was actually trying not to get too philosophical when this comment was thrown at me, and the point I was making was that there are practical consequences for how we think about what we are doing. I was really trying to make a deeply practical argument.

      But I think you are right that sometimes the words and the thinking part themselves can be a turn off. Its like leading a horse to water, where thirst would actually be quenched, but because the horse has a mind of its own and whether you lead him or not its still up to it to drink, sometimes you can present a case that is entirely relevant, even served on a platter, but the timing was off, they are not in the mood, too exhausted, the less room they have to pay attention, etc, you aren’t really having a conversation in the first place…..

      I think you are absolutely right that some folks proceed as if all thought had to be squeezed out of the process, as long as what they are doing is somewhat satisfying, pays the bills, or otherwise fulfills some of their needs and desires.

      Personally, I want the world to be a better place, and I want to be a better contributor to that. I want to be a better potter. But for all those things to happen it seems to require an open mindedness if not actual curiosity. And I want other people to be as curious as I am. It just seems odd that I would have a business where I depend on people being curious about what I am doing but I myself have no curiosity left…..

      Ah, but human life is a paradox at almost every turn, so its not always up to us to make sense of it or to demand consistency…… Marvel at its diversity and awkward potential, yes. And maybe pretend not to see the uneasy parts when they intrude. Maybe that’s our human prerogative too……

      Anyway, thanks for chiming in! I hope I didn’t go too far off the deep end!

  3. les norton says:

    “Less theory, more work”… When I first read this it made me think of Frank Zappa’s CD “Shut up and Play Your Guitar”.

    Of course Zappa had already learned a lot of theory and knew the rules so that he could follow or break them when his creative spark was flowing. He was ready to just “Shut up and play his guitar”. But is concerns me when people don’t want to learn the rules and theories and just want to be “creative”. So many people think that somehow you will loose your creative soul if you spend too much time learning, when it’s exactly the opposite. Learning the rules, theories and skills and looking at what others are doing and listening to what they are saying will open up a whole new world of possibilities. With the added caveat, you will have the skills to pull it off when you start creating.

    What I’m saying is YES!!! “Less theory, more work” or just “Shut up and play your guitar”, but make sure you already understand the theory, down to your very bones, so that when you put that theory out of your mind it will still drip out of your fingertips and let your creativity bloom.

    • I have a problem with saying simply “less theory”, but I have no problem with saying “theory in its proper place”. These are not the same thing (as you actually point out), so phrasing it simply as “less theory” confuses the issue. You don’t need less of it, you simply need it to do the job its supposed to do and keep out of the way otherwise.

      It would be like saying “less sleep” just because there are times when its better to be awake. If the only thing you did was sleep, then, sure, you probably need to do less of it in total. But not normally. And if you have a sleeping disorder that keeps you from getting GOOD sleep, then maybe the issue isn’t quantitative as much as its qualitative……

      THAT’s the point I was trying to make, that the person was confusing a qualitative issue with a quantitative one. If you do theory well, if you SLEEP well, you also know when to get it out of the way. If you do it poorly, it may intrude where it doesn’t belong and where it gets in the way…… (He says after having woken up in the wee hours of the morning because he’s having trouble sleeping through the night….. And now I’ll probably need to take a nap at some point and still be exhausted throughout the day. THAT’s what it is to sleep poorly, and thinking poorly looks pretty similar in its intrusiveness. You don’t need less. You just need to do it better)

  4. Just sounds like someone doesn’t know you well enough to know that you do it all. Maybe not at the same time, but you definitely get to work!

  5. In Praise of Shadows: Ancient Japanese Aesthetics and Why Every Technology Is a Technology of Thought

    The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves… There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete that one can hear the hum of a mosquito… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature.

  6. Zygote says:

    Theory isn’t dogma…
    Theory is put to test each time we apply it.
    Dogma measures…
    Theory moves around and dances with us.
    Dogma tell us who is wrong and who is right.
    Theory is playfully shared with our audience through our art.
    Dogma sits on a plinth.
    Question everything, most especially, question yourself and your beliefs, they are what most often bind us.

    • Well said, Joel!

      I take exception to almost all dogma if it takes away our right to question. I accept the possibility of most theory that allows for itself to be wrong and which accounts for more than a single perspective.

      In the end questions are always bigger than answers. Good theory asks better question than it answers and dogma rarely questions but instead pretends to all the answers…..

  7. Pingback: And Now For Something Completely Different: Less Theory, More Work | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  8. Joseph says:

    I was scrolling through your blog because it had been a while, and this post caught my attention due to what I am writing about on a piece of paper right now. Oddly writing about slip.

    When I first started ceramics the attraction was that it brought calmness to my mind and allowed me to work without the constant chatting of my own mind. Near the end of what used to be red fox pottery I met Adam Field and he was so passionate about actually thinking about what he was doing. At first I was afraid of thinking about thinks in such depth and not be able to keep my mind quiet any more. I was wrong and thinking about why I am doing something helped a lot more than just doing it.

    Though I really got interested in theory doing my teaching qualification, there was so much more theory in that than anything I had come across previously. My ceramics undergrad didn’t do theory of any kind.

    Now I am fascinated with theory, probably why I am on a Masters by Research degree. And by your blog though I don’t always feel like I can keep up with the mental challenge with every else going on around me. Slowly trying to write more for my new blog, on my new website which is still red fox pottery, all my social media is linked to it.

    • I’ll definitely remember to check in on your blog when I get the chance 🙂

      Yeah, its unsettling how easily we sometimes dismiss the thinking part of making. I know when I was first starting out in clay it was the perfect distraction from my degree work in Philo grad school. I needed time away from the cerebral stuff of my normal day, and sitting in front of a wheel with a piece of clay was perfect for that, but I think the more invested I became in enjoying the process and the results the more it seemed worth thinking about. And rather than the sometimes ridiculous antics of my degree work this was something where thinking well obviously pays off. The more I fell on love with clay the less satisfied I was only knowing it through touch and sight. I wanted to also know why. I wanted to know what things were possible and what things I should avoid. You can only blunder around for so long before the lack of mental investment starts to show…..

      Good luck! Thanks as always for checking in 🙂

      • Joseph says:

        The point for me when it started to show was when I moved from gas fired reduction to making the same forms with a white glaze in an oxidation kiln, shame it took me 18 months to realise that perhaps everyone had spotted it but me. Thankfully I met Adam Field when I did.

        For some reason before I met him a lot of the pottery I was seeing here in the UK, didn’t always feel to me it had the mental investment that Adam described. Thankfully due to Adam also introduced me to instagram which has really opened my view to so many more potters.

        Now it feels ridiculous not to have thought about it. Now with informed purposeful practice with an idea in mind I feel like I am making steps at improving.

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