Is this an artist’s statement I should give to the folks at AKAR?

Hello virtual brain trust! I need your opinion. I need to give an artist’s statement and in the state I’m in I don’t really want to talk about my own work. I don’t want to make it personal until I rediscover why I’m making pots. Which doesn’t mean that all my pots are bad pots, just that the reasons I had for making them elude me at the moment. Everything I’ve said in the past sounds hollow and trite. It seems false to my current state of mind. And I’d like to be honest, at least in demonstrating why being an artist is not all champagne and roses.

So give a brother a hand, will you? Is this worth sending to AKAR?

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One of the important questions artists ask themselves is “Where do I find wonder? By what am I amazed?” Artists who are serious about doing what they do are usually engaged in research exploring those things. We have questions about the world. Not merely what it is, but what it could be. We seek to add more of the wonder, more of the amazing, and make our world better as a result. Because we believe that doing this is the right thing. Because it is our moral obligation, our responsibility to remake the world, that we see important differences and are compelled to act on them. Artists are not merely driven by what the world already contains, but by what it should contain. And we make.

So being an artist is not like other jobs, and its not always about becoming well off or even always earning a living. That is not usually the point. Sure, we have to eat and pay bills, but there are many means to those ends. And making our art specifically as a means to earn a living confuses getting paid with making art. It can’t just be about the money. Artists are motivated in other ways, and the living we earn is sometimes secondary to our ability to get the right things done. The more we are making a product for the market the less we are engaged in pure research. The more that gets tied up in communicating with an audience the less purely we are expressing our own amazement. The more focused we are on the bottom line the less attention we have for the wonder. Simply put, things other than our curiosity typically pay much better.

Making a living as an artist is essentially a conflict of interest, and rather than reducing the extremes to find a safe middle ground we often simply reconcile ourselves to an implicit schizophrenia. Professional artists have both a calling and a job. What we think important may not be what others even find interesting. That is a hazard. We can’t just make what the public will buy, but we can’t often only make what our own instincts tell us. In an important sense artists are there to serve their art, and not the art being there to serve the artist. And yet it somehow must…..

From the outside the starving artist makes no sense. From the inside it can make perfect sense. Starving artists are admonished to simply “be better business people”, as if that would solve all problems. But the issue is deeper than simply being good at business. Almost anything can be bought and sold, but does that mean it should? Does having a skill, a good, or service automatically mean its for sale? That is a big question, and mostly we don’t know how to answer it.

For instance, the sex industry is enormous, and it just so happens that most of us enjoy lovemaking in our free time. Are we supposed to be getting paid for it? The issue is whether something we do for its own sake, for our own sake, should also be thought of as something we do for marketplace reasons. Does confusing the two cause us problems, or are we just happy to get paid? Every person denying the reality of the starving artist thinks it is enough just to get paid. They do not understand the conflict.

So here is an experiment. If you have a lover, the next time you make love make it a transaction. Puts some cash on the table and let them know how much you enjoyed their services rendered. Who knows, maybe they should be getting paid! But my best guess is that you will be slapped for insulting them. Something we do for love’s sake is not supposed to get measured by the cash we can get for it. Just because it LOOKS like a marketplace good or service does not mean that we are always supposed to treat it that way. Remember, the sex trade is HUGE. Why shouldn’t we get paid or have to pay?

There is another danger in looking at our intrinsically motivated activities as extrinsic: We can lose sight of our original motivation by getting paid. This is a real threat for artists. Another experiment: If you have kids, try paying them every time they did something right. Studied homework? $5! Took out the trash? $10! Nice to your sister? $15!

If you are hoping they will learn to value doing homework and other ‘chores’ unfortunately the last thing you should do is pay them for it. This substitutes one form of value for another. The idea that they are a chore implies something onerous rather than simply good to do on its own. They will start to learn that the reason they are doing things is no longer because they are the right things to do, that they should be doing them, but instead that they will get rewarded for doing them. And eventually they will learn that without getting paid they no longer really have a reason for doing those things. This is a tragic consequence of trading value for worth. Artists getting paid are in EXACTLY this position.

So pity the artist. I write this as my own artist’s statement, but it is meant to frame the difficulty that almost all artists are challenged by. If you read this and understand the dilemma you will have insight into nearly every artist’s practice. Consider it a possible Universal Artist’s Statement. Then look closely at what artists are expressing. If they are communicating well, chances are they are trying to. Not always, of course. But when we don’t get what an artist is saying its not always a failure to communicate but sometimes rather a different and unfamiliar agenda. And that too can be respected. That too may be important to understand. What is that artist’s joy?

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Posted in Art, Ceramics, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery | 12 Comments

Recovering the Mojo

You have perhaps heard me moan about the pitfalls of ‘signature style’ over the years, but it perhaps takes an extraordinary circumstance and not a little courage to be willing to change. We can get too comfortable with our personas in the studio, and if we are not careful complacence eventually gets boring enough that we are condemned to a half-life as artists: We go through the motions but the passion is gone. We are animated husks churning out product. We are less curious than satisfied. And that can be dangerous.

Lately I am a bit lost myself. At some unknown point in my process selling my pots seems to have replaced an interest in making them. I mean, I hate selling, but I suddenly found I was only making in order that I would sell things. My making had become subservient to what I could flog in the marketplace. Yikes!!! Didn’t I know better? But the truth is I never saw the transition. Some malevolent magician waved his hands and while I was distracted, that brief moment I took my eye off what I was doing, the switch was made and I never saw or even noticed the substitution.

That coupled with the fatigues of dealing with an election gone wrong has seen me lose touch with beauty. I know what makes one pot better than the next, but I don’t exactly care. I can make the mental calculations for assessing quality, but I don’t feel why this matters. I don’t understand it. I am no longer thrilled by beauty. The wonder has been sucked from the world. I am no longer amazed. I look at my studio from the outside and I can no longer make sense of the person who spent the last decades enfolded in its embrace. This is the tragedy of my life at the moment…..

But I’m not giving up! I spent a day last week kibitzing around the firing of Ron Meyers’ woodkiln, and got to hang our with my wise potter friends Kyle Jones, Tony Clennell, Steve Driver, Josh Copus, Hannah May, Emma Smith, and Rick Agel. And this weekend I’m attending a workshop with Linda Christianson, who taught me for a semester back in the day. I’m hoping that with all this pottery stimulation I can recapture at least some of what has been lost.

Linda Christianson has always been one of my favorite potters and I love what she has to say. In my mind there is no more generous or wise a potter than she.

I don’t yet have a plan of action for what’s next. I don’t yet have a reason. Knowing is insufficient for understanding. Understanding balks at a lack of desire. I must first rediscover my curiosity. That is the stumbling block I fail to clear. I have wasted too much time in the studio without having a good reason. I need my mojo back.

Wish me luck!

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Posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 12 Comments

Why is art a luxury?

“I forgot armed robbery was illegal!” A joke told by Steve Martin

What would it mean to forget armed robbery was illegal? What makes that so funny? Would it be like forgetting where you put your keys? Like forgetting someone’s birthday? Like forgetting how to calculate the area of a circle (assuming it was something we did around 10th grade)? Like forgetting the definition of “avuncular”? Like forgetting the rules of chess? Like forgetting that in baseball a ball is thrown for a batter to hit? Or would it be like forgetting your best friend’s name? Would it be like forgetting whether you lean toward being conservative or toward being liberal? Would it be like forgetting which language you are speaking? Would it be like forgetting who your parents are? Would it be like forgetting whether you believed in God?

The joke is that it makes sense to say some things get forgotten but not others. It simply makes a difference what those things are in our lives. Some facts about us are incidental and others are fundamental. Some are loosely associated and others define us. If certain ‘foundational’ things are unknown it is not always a matter of having been forgotten. Sometimes those things do not function in our lives as they do for other people. Its not ‘forgetting’ but something deeper.

And so it becomes an important question where things fit in the structure of our lives. Where do our beliefs fit? Where does knowing fit? If we say that the arts are a luxury is that like saying we don’t know where our keys are, a correctable mistake? Or is it actually saying that we DO know where the keys are, they just don’t drive that particular car?

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The arts have had an image problem they continually fail to address. For many people the arts are seen as a luxury, entertainment at best. Trump tweeting about the Hamilton cast just sums up what an entire segment of the population feels: Artists are here to entertain. Its not even a ‘real’ job. You’re fired!

Which is entirely different from how artists themselves usually feel about art. Practically anyone who is engaged passionately with the arts has something more at stake than entertainment. And far from being a luxury the arts are more like a calling. For these people the arts are necessary.

So what are other folks missing? The time honored strategy within the arts has been to promote the arts suggesting they simply lack the facts about art. If they only had the right facts, that the arts are good for the economy, that they are good for cognitive development, that the arts are important for ‘wellbeing’, the arts would be appreciated better.

Unfortunately the facts seem to have little effect. At best they play to existing beliefs about the economy et cetera, and other means may simply even be better. The facts don’t teach us to love the arts as artists do. The economy is not a reason to be passionate about art. The facts don’t close the gap between why the arts truly matter from the arts being a luxury. Consider: Means are always contingent, and luxury and entertainment have that in common. They are defined through not being essential.

So arguing facts is rarely a good solution for the arts. Or, they are only ‘good’ up to a point. Folks have beliefs about the arts that are themselves independent of the facts. The facts don’t matter because this is not simply an empirical matter. You don’t discover that the arts matter, like finding where you put your keys. You either care about the arts or you don’t, but you are not led there through facts. The truth, whatever that is, will not set us free.

Here is my big question for us all: What if some folks simply do not have a foundation for art to be more than a luxury and the limit of their interest will only ever be that of entertainment? What if we are not all equally capable of finding the intrinsic value of the arts? What if there is some sort of obstruction that closes off even the potential for passion? And I’m suggesting this in opposition to everything I have believed for the last 20 odd years of teaching. This is an idea that may be difficult to digest. Art may simply not be available to all people equally.

Take a deep breath.

What I mean is that people are not necessarily wired in the same way, and that how one appreciates things is possibly sometimes a structural issue. What roles do things have in our lives? Are those roles necessarily available to all of us equally or just to some? Not limited by physical access or culture, but simply as the result of who we are? Is it possible that some folks are closed off from seeing art as anything more than a luxury, and no amount of facts or exposure will change that?

And so it is not simply an issue of communicating values that we face, but an issue of how those values are constructed, and how the construction itself limits our ability to find and experience value. Our own values may not have a place outside where they function and live. It is fundamentally an issue of ownership.

So how do we come to our beliefs? We are not born Republicans and Democrats, atheists or having religious beliefs. Somehow we acquire beliefs and the structures of belief that point us in these directions. We accrue values as part of our culture and upbringing. And up to a certain point we can move freely between a variety of possible foundations. Its not all set in stone for us until change itself becomes harder and harder. I am not specifying a mechanism. For some, the search goes on well into adulthood, but eventually we all more or less settle into some form of world view that orients us and allows us to navigate our existence and its questions. Some things we end up taking for granted and some others are left open to exploration. Some things we can forget and others it makes no sense to. Armed robbery IS illegal, and for some, perhaps, art is a luxury…..

Typically the things we simply assume are the hardest to dislodge. Not impossible, but clearly not easy. As far as the foundation goes, the world makes sense to us because it all hangs together in just such a way. You can’t change the foundation without upsetting the rest. And yet we are not the very same kid we grew up from. More has changed about us than where we leave our keys. The attrition itself is worth looking into.

No kid is not an artist, and yet relatively few adults feel affinity for the arts. Other belief structures have replaced what it meant to be an artist, crowded them out. As it is put in The little Prince, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is”, but is that even right? Did we simply forget? Or did we lose ourselves somehow? The battle to remember is not the same as the war against forgetting. And if its not a matter of forgetting, what then?

A confirmed ‘lifelong’ Republican will almost never find a way to see things as differently as Democrats do. They have not simply forgotten the values of the other side, they just believe the opposite. And that becomes something fixed about them. Our habits of thought are too calcified beyond a certain point. People who see the arts as a luxury from structural consequences of their beliefs are perhaps as susceptible to conversion as Democrats are to being Republicans. Its like we are selling Bibles to atheists and bacon to vegetarians.

It seems on a variety of levels that holding certain beliefs, having certain belief structures, precludes us from entertaining other beliefs. That if you hold one thing you cannot at the same time believe this other thing. To make some folks feel art was more than entertainment would mean you’d have to overturn their whole belief system. You’d have to make them different……

In other words, it might not be about art per se but something much deeper, and if we try to solve the problem on the level of art we are not even addressing the real problem. Their feelings about art may only be symptomatic. And so any solution framed around art will be missing the point.

Ask yourself: What change is necessary for a Democrat to become a Republican? A meat eater to become a vegetarian? An atheist to become religious? What would it take for us to no longer believe the arts mattered, that they carried no value in themselves, that they were only good for entertainment, that they were not necessary in any sense to human life as we know it? This, I believe, is the level where we need to address these issues.

The question is one of fit, and all people are constructed in such a way that only particular things matter. Others simply do not belong. To make them fit sometimes requires a deeper shift than simply adding on something new, like where you put the keys today. There is a difference between things on the surface and things at the foundation. Sometimes it requires fundamental change.

And so with how we feel about the arts. Is it something fixed or something changeable? Because when we try to convince outsiders that they should be more involved in the arts, support the arts, value the arts, we are suggesting it is something changeable. They don’t currently feel that way, but we imagine they could. Whereas we ourselves firmly believe in the value of the arts, and for us this is fixed. We don’t imagine we ourselves could change our minds. And yet we like to think that they simply lack some basic information or exposure, and that presented with it they might become more like us. To me that sounds both blind and arrogant.

What if these outsiders are fixed in some different or opposed way? What if the reason they think art is a luxury is that this is a belief firmly rooted in their own world view? As firmly rooted as our own appreciation for the arts. What if their belief is not based on an absence of evidence but instead the result of a firmly placed world view? That everything in their world points to it, as surely as everything in our world points away from it?

And that may simply be the human consequences of having beliefs, of acting in the world, of aspiring to ideals. It may simply be a consequence of having tamed certain parts of the world and made them our own. And the value may simply be unique to us as a result.

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In the aftermath of the Trump election Diane Ragsdale invited artists to “walk out into our communities, with our senses wide open,” saying, “It’s time to find our humanity and help others to find theirs.” Something has been lost. There is no denying that. It is no coincidence that within the first weeks of the Trump presidency both the National Endowments of the Arts and of the Humanities are under threat. ‘Humanity’ and ‘art’ are both being swept aside in a tide of something we don’t understand.

We have failed in some way that is as yet inconceivable to us. We don’t get it. When you ask the wrong questions even the best answers are wasted. All our victories are hollow. We’ve been holding the line in fringe battles but somehow losing the war. And we’ve congratulated ourselves that our small triumphs are worth the cost when the real game has been played off stage and without us. We have failed to understand the challenge and who we are playing against. We have failed to understand why our versions of both humanity and art are not the persuasive things we take them to be. We need better questions. We need to know why art is a luxury…..

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creativity, metacognition, Teaching, Wittgenstein | 2 Comments

Defending the arts with the NEA on the brink of extinction

There has already been word filtering from the new administration that in order to balance the budget there would need to be a purge of liberal welfare programs like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as well as a call to privatize the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). But the cleansing is less financial than moral. The expenditures for these programs are so tiny in the scheme of things that its hard to make the case they stand out fiscally. Rather, they stand out as representing a set of values that the new administration and many Americans find insufferable. What offends these policy makers is anything wasted on values they themselves do not share and cannot conceive.

As the news has trickled out the response has often been surprise at how fragile a foothold these programs have. So much effort has been spent clawing for a share of the pie that the underlying problem of resistance to the arts and these other liberal frameworks has been largely ignored. Its like someone arguing with the neighbors from their second story window while their house is burning beneath them. Our efforts to beg money from the government has deflected us from facing the fact that many many people have no real love for the arts. We congratulate ourselves on the small victories and ignore that we are actually losing the war….. We have been winning the wrong battles.

Others have convincingly written about what this all means and how we got here. Two essays in particular stood out for me in the last few days. Barry Hessenius wrote a sober yet ultimately hopeful post on his blog that is well worth reading. You can catch that here. Doug McLennan wrote an insightful analysis of some of the background issues that drove us to this point. You can read his post here.

It is certainly a wake up call that few were anticipating. Its one thing to know you are disliked. Its something entirely different to realize that they want to wipe you off the map, extinguish your beliefs, and crush your values. Its downright scary knowing that as an artist they want to kill what makes you you. But this is the new reality and we’d better figure out what brought us to this crossroads and how we can move beyond it with our dignity and wellbeing still intact.

I wrote a response to Doug’s essay and I’ll repost it here. He makes some really good points, so you should read what he has to say. I fill in a few of the blanks and take it one step further. This is what I said:

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This was a really interesting essay. For me it speaks to a kind of confusion that plagues us in so many facets of our lives. I especially enjoyed when you broke it down in your comment to Howard that “jobs and healthcare for all are the consequence of greatness, not the way you become great.” What we so often confuse are one way of taking an issue with other possible ways of looking at it. I’ll call the one you just highlighted mistaking causes and effects. As you put it, greatness causes there to be jobs and healthcare. They are the effects of greatness. What we confuse is taking greatness to be an effect of these other things. As if greatness were caused by having enough jobs and adequate healthcare.

You are right to make this distinction, because taking our eye off the real causes and focusing instead on the effects, even taking them to BE causes, puts the cart where the horse should be. Often we can’t properly tell our apples from oranges. It is important to know whether one is treating symptoms or the disease. If you focus on the wrong thing the patient sometimes needlessly dies…..

Another common confusion that you address in the essay is mistaking value and worth. We are so consumed with consuming that the commodification of our values always seems justified. We have simply traded our real values for what they are worth. We have auctioned off value to the highest bidder. We have put a price on everything that matters, as if it (and we) can all be bought and sold. What a strange culture!

I’d like to suggest another confusion that gets us into trouble: We also mistake ends and means. We are so hypnotized by these other confusions that we can’t see where true value lies. We spend all this time marketing the arts as instrumental and have abandoned the idea that the arts themselves have value. In other words, that the arts are not merely good for something else but are good in themselves. We have traded out the intrinsic value of things like the arts for the suggestion that with the arts you can bolster other social goods. All of which may be true to some extent, but it comes with a cost. It is no more true than that you CAN commodify values or seek the effects of effects and causes of causes. And the cost is no less horrific than turning our values into a stream of cash….. Thank instrumentality for that too. Is it any wonder that the NEA and NEH are threatened?

These confusions interfere with our thinking all the time. We confuse signs with ingredients, big with better, the necessary with the sufficient, meaning with truth, the map with the territory, trees with the forest, a job with a calling, strategy with tactics, precision with accuracy, differences of degree with differences of kind, and a whole host of other distinctions. We are not immune to making these mistakes. Important points of view are being swept aside in some mindless preemptive rush to settle on what we think is right. We need to step back from the headlong race to the cliff’s edge. We need to get a better handle on these perspectives, which ones help us and which do us harm. We need to investigate better and deeper, and at the same time unlearn the poisonous habits of our minds. Value is not a commodity. Greatness is bigger than our small ambitions. And means are not more important than ends.

Its a different question for WHY the arts have intrinsic value, but I will leave you with this:

“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” -John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams (May 12, 1780)

It took admitting the importance of the creative arts to justify these other pursuits. They were the means to that end. And if it took three generations or longer to bear fruit, so be it. We plant the seed and till the soil not for the seed but for the plant which may grow from it. And now we are contemplating erasing the NEA and public support for the arts. As you point out, the excuse of doing so as a way to balance the budget is a smokescreen for us having lost the ideal of the arts’ value in themselves. Rather than aiming toward a world in which our children’s children can study poetry, painting, and music we no longer count those things as value.

THAT is our problem. How did we get here? How did we lose sight of the value that to Adams drove three whole generations in its direction? How did that aspiration die? I suspect the bait and switch occurred when we began staking the value of the arts on their instrumental benefits rather than accepting Adams’ claim that the arts themselves were worth fighting for. Its the same deflection that mistakes carts and horses. Instrumentality has substituted value for worth. We have sold the intrinsic value of the arts for the hope that their instrumental value will make the right difference. And it has failed.

There is some fundamental blockage that prevents this administration and many Americans from aiming at art, from valuing it, or from safeguarding it in our lives. This is what we are not understanding. And we will continue to reap the benefits of our ignorance until we figure it out.

Things to think about, at least.

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, metacognition | 2 Comments

Giving the public what it wants only perpetuates the abuse of artists

I read a post by an arts administrator the other day and was disappointed by how art was being taken almost entirely as “serving the public”. Its as if art is only defined by what it does for an audience and not what motivated artists to make it. You can perhaps see where this ties in to my previous essay about people glibly dismissing ‘starving artists’. Artists have their own idiosyncratic motivations. Dismissing that is a mistake. Too many people assume art has some function in society and that the concerns of artists are themselves insignificant. Is that what you think?

You can read the post here. Two other artists spoke up in before I took it upon myself to offer a different point of view. This is what I said:

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It is revealing that Richard and Scott both chimed in to suggest that the audience focus of your essay was in some way a problem. Not wrong, necessarily, but lacking. They are both artists, after all, and when someone talks about art and leaves the artist hung out to dry its a real question what was missing. How can we talk about art and NOT consider what artists themselves think? How can we talk about the power of art and NOT talk about what motivates artists or WHY artists make art in the first place?

Are artists simply pawns in a larger game, or are they sometimes forced to play a game despite their own intentions? Do they have different motivations that are NOT aligned with serving the public? Is there a conflict between what art does in the public and why there is any art at all to begin with? Why do we make art? Why is there art?

A big question is this: Is art extrinsically motivated or is it intrinsically motivated? If extrinsic, then serving the ends of public goods may be all that matters. Art is a means, of entertainment etc. We can dispense with the artist’s own eccentric ideals and, perhaps, even the artists themselves. An artificial intelligence calibrated to public goods might be the art we prefer. Do we even need human artists? If machines made art would that satisfy us better? If serving the public were all that mattered, these might be serious questions.

In so many discussions it seems artists are the unspoken and neglected factor in art. By treating art as extrinsic artists themselves are forgotten. They are the humans we DON’T want to acknowledge. They are separate from the human public. We talk about art as being what art does FOR the public. Which is like talking about food as simply what it does for the people eating. You have a Hamburger and the point is that someone gets to eat it. But what of the cow that died to give us that burger? What were its dreams and intentions?

We think of art like we think of food: The consumer needs take exclusive precedence. The burger is simply what we consume. And art becomes more about consumption than who did what to get it to your table. Artists are like the cow that gets sacrificed for our meal. And until we respect artists and what their own motivations are we will continue sacrificing them to feed an insatiable appetite of the consumer. Is this right?

I don’t think so, and neither do most artists. STOP BEING A MINDLESS CONSUMER! If art matters to the public can it matter any less to the artists who devote their lives to producing it? To not even consider artists in the equation is inexcusable.

Why would artists support a public vision for art when they end up so inevitably and casually roasted over the fire? There are all these impressive claims for the value of art to the public, and yet artists themselves are devalued. They are removed from the point of view. Hidden under the rug. You want your art, but you don’t want the artists who made it. You don’t care about the artists, you care about the art.

Artists are treated like servants in a big house. “Do your job and don’t interfere. Don’t do anything to get noticed, but make sure the toilets are cleaned and the clothes are washed.” Results are all that matter. Some people want artists to be unseen, merely inconvenient necessities for the production of art. Who actually wants to know how the sausage gets made? If they could actually have art without the artists they think the world would be more perfect. Artists matter so little besides the public good that art does. Artists entertain like gladiators sent out to their death in the Colosseum. The spectacle is what matters.

But artists are not servants, not thralls, not slaves to your desires. When you say “To embrace a responsibility to entertain is not a denial of the desire to be visionary, provocative or profound – but of some recognition that even at that great height, there must exist something for an audience to enjoy” you are confusing the cart and the horse. A responsibility to entertain? Oh My God! There is a happy coincidence when art and the public find common ground, but to portray the PURPOSE of art as entertainment is to employ the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, namely that what follows from was therefore caused by. It imputes an intentionality that simply may not and usually doesn’t exist.

Entertainment may matter to YOU and to much of the audience, but don’t assume that artists are necessarily motivated by pleasing you. The audience enjoyment is NOT why most artists make art. They serve ART, they don’t serve you. They serve their own art. And if you really respected art you might better appreciate the artists who make it. They are more than your servants. They are human beings with their own intentions and own values. Stop sacrificing artists to the belief that their art is merely there to entertain you, that they are only valuable to the extent that they provide “something for an audience to enjoy.” Basic human dignity requires more from us than that…… Treat artists as people first, not as your servants.

Sermon over

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition | 1 Comment

‘Curing’ starving artists

Written in response to yet another marketing and business solution to the difficulty artists have in making a living.

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When you describe something as needing a cure you have already accepted that there is a problem. I understand the sense in which you are claiming it, that IF a person is attempting to make a living there are things which can obstruct this. The problem, what I am accepting as a problem, is that for many people making a living from art is not a simple issue, and that some aspects of it are fundamentally conflicting.

It is not simply the case that being an artist is like other jobs. For some it obviously is. But for many others we make art specifically to bring certain things forward in the world, and getting paid to do so is not always easily reconciled with fidelity to one’s artistic vision. There is an inherent contradiction between doing what you want to do and doing something that others want from you.

Not that they can’t sometimes align, merely that they are not the same thing necessarily and following one path can lead us farther away from the other. Its the difference between being intrinsically motivated and extrinsically motivated. When we do something because its the right thing to do in itself, as making art is for many of us, then its a different proposition from doing something for the sake of an audience. Expressing one’s self is NOT the same as communicating.

“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”
-John Berger

If its a problem reconciling these two points of view, then assuming it gets solved through marketing and business sense is both naive and misleading. It assumes, for one, that the problem is solved on the side of the extrinsic connection to the audience. The people for whom the disconnect between making art and selling art is most evident often care much less about the selling part and are more focused on making what they believe to be the intrinsic mission of their creative lives. They may not want to be starving, but they DO want to make the art they make.

A dislike of starving is not even related to an artist’s motivation except circumstantially. They do not even scale together except by coincidence. And so when you say, “success was largely dependent on how successful those (business & marketing) areas were doing and not so much their abilities as an artist” you have spelled out precisely why the extrinsic factors are so repugnant. Some people would rather be the artist they understand themselves to be than ‘successful’.

To the extent that we actually care about being the best we can be as artists, and knowing that ‘success’ may have nothing to do with that, is it any wonder that many artists would prefer to be ‘starving’ than sell themselves out for the occasional crusts of bread? The less time spent perfecting your artistic craft the more you indicate a conflicting priority, and the less entitled you are to even claim your art as a priority. You can’t magically do both well at once. You can’t necessarily have your cake and eat it too.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are fundamentally at odds. And as such, to the extent this conflict is seen as a problem it is a psychological problem. We feel the tension. We are pulled in two opposing ways, a sort of schizophrenia of ideals. And if this is a problem, perhaps we need to understand that the ‘cure’ may just be worse than the disease. Proposing clumsy solutions is not answering the problem. There may be no cure if the two ideals cannot be reconciled without unacceptable damage. Sometimes, even, the proposed ‘cure’ is death. You have to die as an artist to be reborn with a successful career.

Death to the Starving Artist Cover

“marketing expert and author Nikolas Allen aims to kill this outmoded paradigm once and for all. In the book, Allen guides readers through a proprietary model of using the Right Tools to reach the Right Audience with the Right Message in an effort to educate, encourage and inspire ambitious artists with ideas, insights, and resources that will empower them to succeed in their creative field.”

I found this book cover in a search of images for ‘starving artist’. Disgusting and self serving, isn’t it? The title might as well have been “How to prostitute yourself as an artist”. Anyone who says there is something wrong with you for being a ‘starving artist’ understands very well what it means to be ‘successful’ but does not understand what it means to be an artist.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition | 4 Comments

The Darwinian fate of Dreams, redux

My blog just blew up yesterday as someone shared an essay written some 4 years ago. Thanks whoever you are! Its a good essay about the precarious lives creative people have, written after my worst ever sale. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t. You can find it at:

https://cartergilliespottery.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/the-unbearable-lightness-of-being-a-potter/

In response to the many comments I received after I first posted this I had to think through what it means to follow one’s dreams. What are dreams and why should we follow them? Some commenters felt that dreaming gets us into trouble, and that its more important to be practical minded and sober than wishfully intoxicated. Some dreams are not fit for this world and need to be killed before too much time is wasted on them. But is that right?

Here is what I said:

Dreaming, like any other ability or talent, needs nurturing and training. And sometimes we have to give up one dream to pursue another. So even failed dreams can be the compost for new dreams to find nourishment. And sometimes the plant is made healthier by cutting away dead or failing branches. And sometimes it just takes too much water to sustain a plant that was damaged from birth, and never will survive. Sometimes its best to cut life support. Sometimes a dream is just not fit for our world….

But then sometimes its also important to let a dream have its day in the sun despite all that. Sometimes its important to feed that dream despite knowing that it won’t go anywhere. Sometimes the point of a dream isn’t how much it leads us into the future, but what it is right here and right now. Sometimes a dream needs to be respected just for having been dreamed. “This is MY soul speaking” says the artist. And who is right to tell her that the dream she is dreaming is wrong?

If the world is not set up to support that dream is there something necessarily wrong with the dream? Maybe instead there is something wrong with the world that does not support it. Isn’t the point of dreams that they are not the world? That they are something different? Something new? Aren’t dreams born into this world as a sometimes violent tear in the fabric of reality? By their very nature, dreams are not of this world. So how can the world’s support ever be a measure of the ‘fitness’ of the dream?

But we can also make the world more like our dream. Isn’t the point of dreams that we can sometimes follow them and change the world? That we CAN make it different? Isn’t following a dream this magical opportunity to imagine something different? And if it is simply being measured against the status quo, what dream would ever pass muster? Don’t dreams succeed precisely because they DO change things? That the world now IS a different place?

Isn’t it also right to dream the seemingly impossible? To challenge ourselves beyond our known limits? To find new limits in previously undiscovered territory? Don’t we have to deny playing it safe just to have these dreams? Is that wrong? Are only the easy births worth supporting?

If we make it a Darwinian scenario aren’t we just saying that only the easy dreams get to survive? That its the luck of the draw that there are are doctors and a support team to gentle the newborn infant into its swaddling clothes? And that dreams born into a war zone, or born into poverty, are just out of luck? That they are right to die off? That their fitness for the world was that they were born into poverty and strife?

That just seems wrong to me. And if that is the case, then we can’t afford to measure our dreams simply by which of them survive long into this world. That makes it an accident of history whether something makes it or fails. Do we truly wish to measure dreams on those terms? If Michael Simon’s pots had never reached an audience, if YOU and I had never gotten to see them, would his dreams of beauty and function have been wrong? Would they have been unfit simply because there was no one at that time and place who could appreciate them? Are we saying that the tree never made a noise because it fell in a forest where no one could hear it?

And how much beauty is still out there languishing for lack of opportunity? For lack of an appreciative audience? How many dreams get squashed simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? The validity of a dream simply cannot be measured by the contingent circumstances of how well it survives in the world. Sometimes the measure is how well it survives despite the world it is born into. Just ask van Gogh…..

Sure, some dreams can make a bigger difference, and some dreams don’t make any ripples at all. We tend to notice the ones that DO survive and change things. But do we only celebrate the dreams that shake mountains? Do we only praise the dreams that get born in fancy hospitals to wealthy parents? Or are adopted by privileged families? Is that the real test? The dreams that through worldly Darwinian contingency DO have an effect on the world at large? Are the dreams of the quiet hermit on the lonely mountain top any less worth dreaming?

It is the ability to make dreams real that ends up getting celebrated instead, if we put all our marbles in a Darwinian sorting matrix. Do we want to only recognize dreams of the people in positions of worldly power, where its simply easier to make dreams come true? Isn’t a dream its own integral value no matter who is dreaming it? No matter where its born and into what circumstances?

Isn’t predicting the potential efficacy of a dream in the world in a sense like trying to measure how well a car will run based on the color it was painted?

Don’t all sorts of other things have to line up for one dream to survive and for another not to? And yet, the fitness of the dream is in question, not the fitness of the circumstances it was born into. Does that make sense? A child born into poverty starts out with incredible disadvantages, and if that child gets pulled down how can we in good conscience put all the blame on that child? Is the way the world actually is the best sorter for which dreams make it and which do not? 

And isn’t THAT the point of dreaming in the first place? That there is more to value than simply what is? That we can escape the inequity of our circumstances? If only we dream big enough. And if only the hand of Darwinism isn’t there to slap us down.

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Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

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Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment