Intending the best

For those of you who’ve been paying attention to the national arts scene lately you will have run across some important and overdue issues being addressed. The idea of equity, of inclusiveness, and of diversity are currently in the spotlight as arts organizations strive to represent and espouse the virtues of society.

So a few weeks ago Americans For The Arts published their ‘Statement on cultural equity‘, apparently years in the making, and then hosted a series of blog commentaries on the statement itself and the issues it involves. On the whole there were some amazing contributions, and it IS something we need to be discussing, need to take seriously enough that we can talk about these things openly. Others in the field weighed in with thoughtful and challenging ideas, and I get a real sense that folks in a position to do something are motivated to take further steps.

One recurring criticism of the initial AFTA statement is that its a great directive with little or no clues for how it is to be applied. The conceptual and aspirational ducks are all lined up, but the practical and applied ducks have yet to be hatched.

My criticism is a bit different. My worry is that our intentions to do the right thing manifest the values we are interested in, but mere interest is not a guarantee that the pursuit even makes sense. There is a disconnect between not just our values and the world itself but between our values themselves. Its not just a difficulty of matching our values to the world, but fitting competing values that often play against one another. In other words, our intentions can be idealistic, which is not a comment on whether we are right to have them, but they may also be unrealistic in ways that are obscured. The lofty goals and the grit of determination find common ground in many places, but rarely to either’s complete satisfaction. The question I have is whether this difficulty is something structural, and that we also need to address that before we get carried away intending the ‘right’ things…..

Here is what I said in response to Doug McLennan’s post:

Once upon a time it was suggested that to know the good was to do the good, and that our failing to do the good was a failure in knowing. And it seems almost certain that equity is a good, inclusiveness is a good, and diversity is a good, but we have an almost impossible time not just implementing these things but understanding what they look like together in a given situation. Moving from the ideal to the practical gets messy real fast. Knowing in itself seems insufficient. Sadly, knowing that equity is a good is not much help in making the world more equitable.

One of the practical issues seems to be that if diversity and equity are not exactly incompatible they are at least somewhat at odds. It seems more and more likely that we can aim at diversity at the expense of equity, or we can aim at equity at the expense of diversity, but we can’t do both well at the same time. The more inclusive and diverse we make things the harder it is to make sense of equity, and the more equitable and fair things are the less room there seems to be for true differentiation. Equity and fairness are leveling, homogenizing, and play on commonalities. Diversity and inclusiveness are multiplying and broadening (if not in fact fracturing). I’m not saying these ideals are necessarily mutually exclusive, just that in practical terms they create difficulties for each other.

So perhaps its a real question whether we can have our cake AND eat it too. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t want to, just that ideals are what we strive for, the values that motivate us, and that their rightness is no measure of their attainability. Ideals are an important aspect of human beliefs and behavior, but there is also the messy reality of the world in which we seek to impose them. Perhaps it resembles the quantum problem of measuring either the position of particles with precision or their momentum, but not both at the same time. Is there a clue here about the fundamental nature of our ability to establish values in the world? The brighter you shine a light the deeper the shadows? The tighter the focus the more things get left unaccounted for?

Maybe we simply need to face up to the condition that the different ways we have of measuring the world, the different values we attach to it, are not all lined up for us to accommodate at the same times. Yes diversity. And yes equity. No question about either of those. But can we really do them both well at the same time?

We don’t need proof that diversity and equity are good things and worth pursuing. What we need proof of is that they can coexist in the world to an exemplary degree at the same time.

Last night I had an interesting conversation with a fellow potter where I talked too much and attempted at one point to get these ideas across. I raised the scenario because I thought it related to the conversation we were having about her plan to do things more intentionally, and my contrasting perspective that intention is all well and good, but there are other values and other possibilities as well as hard realities that intention balks at. It IS important to figure out what matters, to have the best intentions possible. Its an important if not necessary starting point. But its not everything. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts this year you will see that in making art, at least, it sometimes seems important to leave space for permission, for things to evolve on their own. Perhaps this also has some application in life in general as well……

Things to think about!

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, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Intending the best

  1. I can’t help but think of the Potter’s Council decision to cancel the Tour of North Carolina Potteries last month as a means of protesting the state Government’s HB2 legislation. What probobly seemed like an admirable decision to those on the outside of the state, actually seemed more like politically correct grandstanding and a sad example of what happens when groupthink takes the place of individual thought. Large scale corporate boycott’s are one thing but when educational and cultural events are discontinued the very vehicles for social change are set to rest. How’s the saying go……”the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    • That’s exactly it!

      Intentions are often either so context specific that they blow up in other arenas or so general and optimistic that they implode in contact with the real world. But they sure sound good! Don’t let them tell you they don’t sound like a good idea 🙂

  2. “I would not go so far as to claim that knowledge and wisdom are mutually exclusive; but they are far from being communicating vessels, and the level of one has no bearing on that of the other. More people have gained wisdom from unknowledge, which is not the same as ignorance, than from knowledge.” Erwin Chargaff

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