The mythologies of sense

Things make sense to us. How could they not? The world is not a complete mystery. We damn well know certain things. Most of the time we are not confused. Confusion is the exception. There is clarity to be found amidst the detritus of entropy. With things like science and technology we can even legitimately feel that we are approaching a better and better grasp of the way the world truly works. Progress.

Culture sets us up to make meaning of the raw data we are surrounded with. The chaos is spun into a golden song of crystalline sincerity. We believe the world that makes sense to us. How can we not? So its easy to look out at the world with the confidence of conquerors. We have tamed the wilds of many frontiers. The world is our oyster. Manifest destiny. Eminent domain. Righteousness. Victory!

Of course we are right. Unfortunately, so too is everyone else. At least, to a larger extent than we often admit. Being right we like to think we are really right, and that, therefor, others cannot also be ‘right’ at the same time. The weight of our convictions drowns out that of others as if survival is secured only by pushing the competition under the surface. Survival becomes entitlement. Our rightness itself deceives us with righteousness. The center of the meaningful universe is our own. Others are not merely wrong, they are insipid and blind. Convivial convictions convince us convincingly.

“You see,” said my Teacher, “how little your words have done. So far as the Monarch understands them at all, he accepts them as his own – for he cannot conceive of any other except himself – and plumes himself upon the variety of Its Thought as an instance of creative Power. Let us leave this God of Pointland to the ignorant fruition of his omnipresence and omniscience: nothing that you or I can do can rescue him from his self-satisfaction.” — the Sphere, Flatland

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”– Francis Bacon

I was in a conversation the other day that started with this pronouncement:

This is what 'good design' thinks of itself.

This is what ‘good design’ thinks of itself.

I said this:

I can think of exceptions and counterexamples for each of them 🙂

Personally, I have a negative reaction to anyone telling me a definition that is this specific. If I had written this list I would have put “or not” after EVERY entry. While I admire all these things I admire their exceptions too much not to stick up for them as well 🙂

It started another conversation in which I had these things to say:

All I’d say is that the rightness of doing things one particular way is not a comment on doing them some other way. Different ways of doing things are not always related except by the similarity of their outcomes or some credible goals they share in common. Different ways of doing things are not always measured on the same scale of success. I have talked my way blue trying to make this point over the last several years, and every time I hear someone propose a singular definition of good and bad in design or otherwise I know how much work I have left undone…..

We take our own points of view so serious that we forget that most others do as well. When we disagree on these finer points of our definitions folks rarely even attempt to see the other side’s perspective. Not only is that a mistake, but its often embarrassing when one’s views are articulated as somehow authoritative. Being a legitimate point of view is not the same as being the only view worth listening to.

This guy knows what he’s talking about, obviously, but what would he say about the exceptions to his dogma? There are countless ways of being wrong and right in just about every sphere of human interaction and endeavor except for the ‘pure’ things divided up by natural laws and logic. Only math and science offer much to suggest that questions only have singular answers. And while these things may have beauty, they are not art nor do they stand for art on this issue.

My friend responded:

Carter, seems like you are doing it wrong, if you have so much work left to do and find yourself blue. Maybe you need to espouse the right way.

Actually. I think there are some confounds here. The Dieter is smart, clear, and he is attempting to canonize his own aesthetic principals. A honored and worthy goal, until the next person imposes their own value system on a culture.

The words good and bad are problematic as they evoke ethics, religion, etc. They are also not measurable. When we enter the realm of the qualitative though we leave behind measurement, or we collectively agree upon rulers that give us a framework to asses. For example how thin can you throw is an arbitrary ruler and we no longer accept that as a measurement of skill.

BUT….. I do believe in common human things, I do believe that quality and execution of an idea do count and are not as subjective as intellectual rigor can dissect. I do believe that we as artists can tap into this stream and make timeless work.

I responded:

Hah! You always knew when to bring the humor out in a conversation 🙂

I agree with most of what you say. There are plenty of honored and worthy goals. What they are depends on who you are talking to. I think you’re on to something in what you say about quality and measurement. I suppose I would even agree with you that some values seem part of the human equation, that they are embedded in what it means to be human. The whole, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness stuff is fairly fundamental.

So maybe there are these ‘timeless qualities’ you are so keen on. Its just that most art I know is rather homely where these big issues are concerned. Most art I am familiar with treats of smaller issues that are less fundamental and more perspectival. ‘Timeless’ is such a big word, and if you are using it to refine a sentiment of something like beauty you are asking a lot.

Beauty ends up being one of those treasures of the human experience, but its truly amazing how differently different people witness it. The capacity for beauty may be fundamental, but the discrete expressions of beauty are anything but timeless. I could care less about Greek formalisms and the purity of aesthetic ideals.

Beauty and art are like languages if not in fact languages. You yourself said as much recently. It is interesting that different languages can talk about the same sorts of things, but understanding one language’s account does not provide the tools for making sense of a different account. I know a bit of Dutch, a smattering of German, and a tiny tiny bit of Spanish in addition to my mother tongue. Knowing English as well as I do gives me absolutely no advantage in understanding expressions in these other languages.

If art is a language, only the people who read it and speak it will understand. If art communicates it communicates in ways that some will understand and others not. The message may be translatable into other languages, but unless we have an ability to grasp meaning in the expressions themselves we can never make that transition.

Language is specific to a way of life. Language is a timeless feature of human intelligence, but the expressions of language are historical accidents and contingent evolutions of mere conventions. The message may be timeless, but the phrasings will never be more than conventional. The work will never be more than conventional. The work itself is a document written in a specific language to be read only by those who understand the words it is written in…..

Sorry I am so f-ing serious, but communicating ideas is never straightforward. Language and the persistent gap between getting it and misunderstanding, right? 🙂

His response:

One thing that makes my religion awesome is in Judaism to argue, to debate, to wrestle with meaning is a holy act. I believe it actually moves us closer rather than define the gap. Not that we necessarily agree but rather we understand each other.

So, to language. I would say that Art is not a language, but perhaps a language group. By speaking functional clay I am able to better contextualize and understand painting but i am not fluent or versed in the materials, two dimensional representation, the tools or vocabulary. Still I can get the gist.

If you were to watch a film spoken in Malay, by watching you would be able to recreate in english a fair amount of dialogue that matched the meaning of conversations, you would have the plot and character development. You would get this from tone, gesture, back ground music, expression, what the film maker choses to highlight and omit. The spoken words would be only one thing, and they may confuse you in their specificity. You would also identify with the human story told, and come to it with some knowing from your own experience or other stories you have read.

Trends in art, internal contextual references in art to the work of other artists are akin to idioms. Understanding tells us what they mean, but they rely on a knowledge base that is very specific. But even so there is often a parallel for the concept of idioms in other languages.

抛砖引玉 (pāo zhuān yǐn yù) Is Mandarin which means “Throw a brick to attract Jade” Pretty specific and meaningless out of context. It means brainstorming, just tossing ideas out there; which is a fairly globally recognized idea.

My response:

I just read this bit by Longfellow:

“In the elder days of art, Builders wrought with greatest care Each minute and unseen part, For the gods are everywhere.”

I imagine a work of art as a document written in an esoteric language addressed to particular gods 🙂 Its the language of addressing those gods more than something meant for human consumption specifically. Humans learn the words and meanings, and especially when the document is referencing human activities or qualities this can come to feel natural. But it will never replace our mother tongue except, perhaps, for those whose mission in life has come to be that of an oracle for these gods 🙂

You must mean something like this Woody Allen film from the 60’s 🙂

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6f5SiQhV9qo

And then moments later I saw this in my fb feed:

devil's work devil's work

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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