“I don’t think you can talk about progress in art—movement, but not progress. You can speak of a point on a line for the purpose of locating things, but it’s a horizontal line, not a vertical one.” Donald Barthelme
Several folks in my community have accused me of being “a better potter” these days, suggesting that from where they stand it appears that I have improved remarkably. Thanks!, I guess….
But I confess this has also left me uneasy. What? Was I not so good that long ago?…. Or maybe I just can’t take a compliment.
Yes I am a curmudgeon. That I won’t quibble with! My response probably says more about me than either the people doing the complimenting or even what got said. Am I getting it all wrong? These people certainly mean well, and want the best for me. Why does it not feel like a compliment?
What, exactly, am I obsessing over? Don’t I acknowledge that some things I am doing *are* better than before? Am I not constantly trying to ‘improve’ my craft? Are they not simply noticing the consequences and effects of my hard work? If I can say with confidence (if not authority) that specific aspects of my pottery-making are better, can’t I also say that I am a better potter? Doesn’t ‘local’ improvement also imply a certain improvement ‘globally’?
The world is interesting enough that all those things may be true in some sense, and yet fall far short of another explanation. I am uneasy about being called a ‘better potter’ for, I think, good reasons. Let me describe it to you:
What is the difference between accuracy and precision? Sometimes they seem to say the same thing, right? But there is also an important difference that we can (need to) make sense of. Accuracy does not always mean precision. They come closest together when being accurate IS being precise, but those, it turns out, may be very narrow circumstances.
For example, accuracy has to do with how well we hit the target we aim for, but we have not as yet described what we are aiming at. The accuracy depends in some part on the kind of things we are aiming at. If the target is precise, then our accuracy itself may be drawn with precision.
“Take a dart board and aim for the bulls eye.” You either hit it or you don’t. Some misses count worse than others. There is a range of precision that determines how accurate we are. These are sectioned off in areas bounded by metal wire. The ultimate precision might be the Robin-Hood-splitting-an-arrow type, where ‘exactness’ is something absolute.
“Cut a length of wood 15 and 3/4 inches.” You measure the wood, get out your saw, make the cut, and check to see how accurate you were. You can eyeball the results and see that ‘within an acceptable tolerance’ you were accurate, or you were not. And the further away from the mark the worse your accuracy.
But how precise is ‘precise’ here? Is there an absolute? Or only practical increments? Degrees of precision? Do we need a micrometer to gauge our accuracy? an electron microscope? or is the relevant precision measured more to what the eye can easily discern? Do we care about being ‘exact’ to the nearest .0000001 of an inch? What, precisely, is ‘measuring up’ here?
“Park the car close to the house.” What counts as being accurate? In the carport? In the driveway? In the garden? What if the target is left open ended to a certain extent? What if the target itself is only roughly described? If there is no one absolutely accurate location are there even necessarily degrees?
Accuracy does not, it seems, always depend on precision. If you are not aiming at something precise, then measuring the absolute accuracy loses its potency. (We would be entitled to ask, “Is the garden ‘close’ enough?” And remember, we did not say “as close as you can”, merely “close”.)
We aim at ‘fuzzy’ and ambiguous things all the time. Not everything we do even counts as aiming. Sometimes it is ‘searching‘.
So what does it mean to be called a ‘better potter’? Is it like getting closer to the absolute center of the bulls eye? Is it being measured by a distance from an absolute point? Because I want to say that ‘accuracy’, measuring up, necessarily implies some sort of ‘aim’. And so becoming ‘better’ seems to indicate a target of some sort:
If I am a better potter now than I was before, what exactly am I aiming at? What do these people think I am aiming at?
Because the idea of aiming does seem to count for something. We assume that aiming is a necessary first step. We in fact assume that aiming is a necessarily desirable first step. But that is not universally the case, no matter how true it is in some circumstances.
For instance, sometimes aiming, and in fact precision in aiming, is itself counter productive. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely puts it,
Trying not to think about something is one of the best ways to ensure that you think about it constantly. If you try not to think about polar bears for the next 10 minutes, you will think more about them in those 10 minutes than you have in the past 10 years.
Aiming itself can occasionally be self defeating, in other words. Aiming is simply not everything. It is by no means everything important.
Let me give you an alternative way of looking at this: Being a potter is not just one type of thing, but many. If I can be measured as ‘better’ in some respects I can also be measured as ‘worse’ in others. Being a potter is not a simple or a unified thing. So saying you are ‘better’ than before (or better than others) ignores the complexity of what you are doing and boils-it-down to some essence that may or may not have anything to do with your own ambitions. That is, it may have little to do with the complexity and contradiction between the values you take into the studio on any given day, much less from one day to the next.
Consider that carefully.
For instance, for many of us being a potter can be seen as something like the adventure of learning new games. If we are simply playing one game, by one set of rules, with one particular way of ‘winning’, then it IS simple. But making pots is rarely that simple, unless you are working at a production line. Instead, at one time we may be doing something like playing checkers: These operations with these materials with these goals in mind. And then we see something new that intrigues us, and before we know it we are playing chess: Same board similar pieces, but different moves and different objectives. (This is an important comparison)
Now if we are talking to someone who likes chess more than checkers, it will seem as if we are doing something ‘better’: We are ‘better’ at playing games because we are playing better games. And if we ourselves like this new game more we can affirm it as an improvement to our playing. Our practice is simply interpreted along the aim of the relevant people viewing it. Our values entitle us to make this claim.
But notice here that what we are measuring with is how we feel about particular games. We are measuring by our commitment to the games themselves rather than an independent calibration. We are measuring with our own bias, which may or may not be fair.
That we have these preferences is entirely understandable. And that we attempt to justify our choices could not be more natural. But if we say something like “Chess is more complicated, and therefore a better game” isn’t that also arbitrary? What made ‘complexity’ the right standard to measure by? What made it right in this particular circumstance? And complexity as measured how?
What if we next learned the game of Go? Similar pieces to checkers and even simpler ‘moves’, and yet arguably the hardest game to master. We need a new standard to make claims that Go is necessarily ‘better’ than the other games. And if Monopoly is our next game, what then? Risk? Scrabble? Trivial Pursuit? What if the game is as loose as two kids playing in a sand box where there are no rules beforehand and everything is improvised and invented on the fly?
What if we are occasionally potters without precision? Sometimes even without aim? What if we are sometimes explorers instead, and ‘accuracy’ is sometimes invented after the fact of having chosen our direction? What if we simply act, and figure it out afterwards? What if our ‘justification’ is simply how we reassure ourselves after we end up where we end up?
Sort of like this:
The point is that if we take away the notion that being a potter is simply one thing we must also dispense with an absolute sense of accuracy and the ‘better’ it entails. Perhaps also the idea of precision actually matters less in the abstract of absolutes than it does in the specific meanderings of what potters themselves decide they are doing. That is also worth considering.
We just care about different things. And so it matters what we think we are doing but also why. You can be good at chess and terrible at Trivial Pursuit. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? In chess you can be aiming at checkmate and also at a draw. Which is preferable?
There are a plurality of things worth aiming at, if aiming itself is even that important.
And assuming we are right to judge itself needs to be justified, it seems. We put the cart before the horse too often. We calibrate good and bad before we know what people are actually doing. We take our own measuring to be more important than understanding other people’s motives…. What consequences does this have?
The real world is ever so complicated. You can be aiming at just about anything it is humanly possible to imagine, and construct your own sense of precision and accuracy around those details. From the outside isn’t is simply easier to make assumptions? What looks like failure might end up as a new interesting direction. What looks like ‘success’ can be a dead end…..
An artist’s own understanding can be difficult to pin down. It doesn’t always work out that the ideas I am experimenting with have uses in all the contexts I apply them to. Or, the question is sometimes having specific ideas in mind and then assuming they translate into other projects.
“I’m sure you know what ‘transparent’ means, and what a ‘red line’ means. I hope I don’t need to explain it to you… (laughter) You need to draw a red line with transparent ink.” This is what happens when we try to play chess on a Monopoly board using the rules of scrabble. Would we say that “Seven red lines all perpendicular drawn with green and transparent ink” is something ‘precise’? It sounds precise, at least, but the individually precise parts do not add up. How would we measure accuracy in aiming at this target? What would ‘aiming’ even be like here?
Lots to consider! Big questions rarely have simple answers. Sometimes a better understanding is the one that leaves you with fewer illusions, even if the things that remain are not as sparkling and absolute as what we had hoped for. As Julian Baggini puts it, “Clarity of thought often replaces vague confusion with bewildering complexity. Better understanding just leads to a better class of headache.”