Why art needs stories

If you go back and read what I’ve blogged the last several months you may see the signs of a story being told. Several stories, perhaps, and that in itself is a story. At least, I have attempted to describe a few stories that may or may not add up to something also interesting. Parts of a larger whole. I’m going to be a bit more explicit, here, with what I’m saying:

Your art will almost never be understood the way you intend it, if you even intended it a specific way. Most things won’t speak for themselves in the way you want, but instead speak any number of things that never mattered to you. And for every artist it only seems inevitable, even necessary, that what we do is subject to gross misunderstanding.

I’ve got plenty to say about this, and I will at some further point, but today I am thinking of a comment some other potter left me about one of my Instagram images.

Latest version of my handle, a bit beefier, and constructed very differently from how I had been making them

Latest version of my handle, a bit beefier, and constructed very differently from how I had been making them

The potter said “if the width of the spiral in the pot is reversed then they will really start to lift and sing. 😊 ”

I won’t deny that he(she?) is seeing what they see, and undoubtedly they are trying to be ‘helpful’, but what does this have to do with me? There is obvious truth that anything we say reveals more of ourselves than whatever we are speaking about. This is what the potter saw. Period. It scratches that surface only. So what did I want to say? And why was it so misunderstood? Why isn’t the work saying what I want it to say?

When you look at a piece of art, a person’s work, its easy to imagine that what you’re looking at tells the whole story. The commodification of art objects gives us this illusion of wholeness, that what you can buy is something discrete and established. That’s a great story to believe. But really, any one piece of work is only good at telling where the artist ended up this one time, not how they got there. The work you are seeing has a role to play, but its only a very small part of what’s going on. Anything you can see at any one time is not the entire story.

Even for artists who are mostly interested in the same consistent finished product, that part which customers get to see is only the visible tip of an iceberg that includes all the trial and error, all the testing and hard won experiments that eventually led to this one place. The duck is paddling furiously but the appearance above water is serene. Its the ugly truth of how the sausage gets made.

Every artwork is the culmination of those things that went before, and are still yet springboards of what will happen after. The finished pot, especially, even, the work at its in-progress latest, is only a snapshot of some moment. Its not nearly the story of ‘why’. The complete meaningful utterance has yet to be spoken.

Its like we skip ahead to the ending of the chapter, see that the princess married the prince, and feel we now understand things. Unfortunately we are blind to how they got there and ignore where they will go on to. We take this thing in front of us now as telling the only story that matters, the whole story, the finished product. We see, and we conclude. As if the ‘conclusion’ we see itself were the thing that mattered most.

At least, that’s the story we often tell ourselves, that reading the visible conclusions of artists’ process, the work, is the essential part.

And so it seems incumbent on artists that we say what really happened. Yes the princess married the prince, it was a nice wedding, but the prince was actually a toad in the beginning of the tale, and the princess had to first escape the clutches of her wicked stepmother! The wedding is all very well and good, but don’t forget the other drama! Don’t forget the other adventure! Don’t forget what really happened! Don’t forget that the story is much bigger than what you can tell from how it ended to us. Did the honeymoon last? “Happily ever after” is us putting a bow on a much bigger picture. For our sake. For brevity’s sake. It had to end somewhere. Something needed to wind up at market……


So what was the story my commenter missed in blithely jumping ahead? Well, the assumption seems to be that I was interested in, if not actually aiming at ‘lifting and singing’ in some particular way, as if the pot would be ‘improved’ by attending to those details. Maybe they would, right? But that’s a pretty big presumption to place on my shoulders. Are those the values I was attempting to convey? Is that the story I was trying to tell?

Not really, unfortunately. Instead of those marks being some sort of ‘design’ element I’d rather you considered them a ‘process’ element. Rather than considering them an intentional aspiration I’d prefer you considered them the fall out of permission. That is the story I like. Its what I believe, at least.

Take this story:

You send your kid to college, and your visiting neighbor sees the transcript and tells you “If only she’d taken more biology courses, then her prospects would really start to lift and sing.” And yeah, maybe some parents would prefer to design their children’s careers in such a way that their college courses make a statement of a particular kind. Maybe that’s okay, for some. But maybe also the nosy neighbor should mind their own business. Let the kid take art and literature classes if she wants and just be happy she is doing something she likes. Maybe that’s okay too. And maybe in those cases its more our job to give them permission rather than specific direction.

You may understand this better if you were offended by the recent Wells Fargo ads that have caused such a justifiable uproar.


The perspective that kids need to be something specific, especially specifically NOT some other things can be a mistake. A presumption. Maybe there’s nothing specific that they should be. Maybe the little boxes we try to stuff them in are insufficient for their purposes. Is the only point what would get them ‘ready for tomorrow’, what would make them ‘lift and sing’? Do we even have a proper understanding of what that means? Maybe its something they must discover themselves for themselves. Invent, themselves.

And that’s what I want my pots to feel, that I gave them permission to be themselves. Sure, they’re my ‘kids’, I helped give them a grounding that sets them on the ‘right’ path, but I left many things up to them themselves. I was there when they needed me and I let them express themselves when it seemed wise to let go. I wasn’t hung up on standardized expectations. I was not a helicopter artist.


The problem artists often face is that there are all these neat categories where things are supposed to fit. We too easily accept that there is a right and a wrong way of doing things. We sometimes expect that things we can fit in certain categories must be aiming at the same things in the same way. We presume to judge. We judge books by covers all the time. We leap to conclusions, because we didn’t get to see how it was made, what gears interlock, what things really matter. We take shortcuts to understand the whole based purely on the visible parts, the process based only on the results, the evolution entirely based on the now. We judge the territory from the map.

Sometimes it is prudent to take these shortcuts, but is this what we are hoping for as artists? Not I. It sometimes offends me to be misunderstood. And to fight this, to make ourselves better known, we simply have to intercede in this fabulation by our audience. Don’t judge us too quickly, because the iceberg is vast, the legs are pumping furiously, bland covers can hide excellent books, and the ingredients that went into it might not all have the same appeal. Much is hidden, and you can only read some things off the surface. Any good art challenges us to look deeper.

In a sense, the audience is doing their speed reading of our work, and what we must do is distract them from their easy assumptions, direct their attention to where we place value. We must tell a ‘better’ story than what they were getting from our work. Paradoxically we must get them to listen to US rather than just to the work itself. The work is silent on too much of what matters, and speaks volumes where it isn’t needed. We artists must do the talking. And if that actually is a better outcome, it only seems making the best of a bad situation.



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, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

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