Belonging

Last year must have been a fertile time for my brain. All sorts of interesting things keep popping up in my facebook ‘memories’, and I am tempted to simply share them all again and with you all here. Turns out this was posted on the blog last year and it resonated with folks. Go back to that original post and check out the comments. Here is what I had to say:

I once used to think I was from here. My parents told me stories of my upbringing and I had memories of specific joyful things. It turns out that the first day I went to high school I discovered I did not belong where I was. I had somehow arrived at a new and very different place where all the familiar ways of doing things no longer made sense. But I know I hadn’t gone anywhere special. Not then.

Perhaps the transition had been earlier. I remembered my first day of grade school. I had a brand new coat. Some kid took it and gave me his. I knew then that I was not from here. And I can remember even further back. My mom and I were walking on a busy street in downtown Philadelphia and I was holding her hand. Only, when I looked up it was the hand of a stranger. After a few moments of shocked outrage my real mom found me and the sunny summer day went on again.

So maybe its not that we physically have to leave our home planet to be aliens here. I get confused all the time, the world stops making sense, and I look into others’ eyes and have no sense of what they mean. Perhaps being alien comes with our birth. Maybe only some of us, but maybe all of us. Perhaps its like blue jays placing their eggs in other birds nests: When we are born we are born to the wrong parents, sisters and brothers, and we never fit in just right. We find ourselves in the wrong places all the time. The jobs we get as adults we don’t always belong at. Life sometimes fits like a pair of jeans that are three sizes too small.

But the alien in us is not the only traveler. Sometimes we DO belong. Sometimes a friend is there for us, can say exactly the right words to turn us from alien back to belonging. Sometimes we are part of things bigger than ourselves. And while it may be a struggle at times and even make us angry, there are things we believe in that give purpose to our life and are indelibly who we are. Every good parent knows a purpose that is defining. Even the alien in us can carve out a space where it belongs, where it can be who it needs to be. Every artist probably knows exactly what I’m talking about.

What a strange life it is to be human! How lucky I feel that I have friends who remind me that I am not out of place at all times. There are homes for me in many people’s lives. I belong to others as they belong to me. There is a studio that welcomes me in the good times and bad. And pushing clay around on a wheel makes me feel both alive and somehow strangely whole. And isn’t that just wonderful 🙂

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This is something I posted on facebook the other day and wanted to share it here. It may be the first non-specifically-art related post I have put here. I hope it speaks to artists. I think it does.

Cheers!

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Posted in Art, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

Repost: The Rules of Communication

A post I wrote one year ago today that seems a significant part of the conversation on this blog the past few entries:

The rules of communication

Lately I have been engaged in a number of conversations about meaning in the arts and art as a form of communication. The inimitable Chuck Wendig had a decent post on why breaking grammatical rules was okay. I agreed with everything he said except the following:

“I’m fond of saying that we need to learn the rules of writing in order to break them, and we need to break the rules of writing in order to learn why we need them in the first place.”

My response was:

Don’t give rules too much credit. At least, don’t credit them with some sort of objective value. We don’t *need* to learn THE rules. We need to learn some rules, a variety perhaps, and use them according to situations and our intentions. The need is merely that some sort of structure is the conveyance of meaning, but the structure itself is negotiable.

We are given a deck of 52 cards: What are the rules? We have to decide what game we are playing first for any rules to even make sense. The rules have no value outside the game being played. A queen is more valuable than an 8? A spade more valuable than a diamond? You have to follow the 6 of clubs with either a club or another 6? Neither of those? None of this matters unless you are playing a specific game by specific rules, and the rules only stand for that one game.

Is this a good hand or a bad hand? How can you tell? Dueces wild? Jacks wild? Go fish? Hearts? Spades? Bridge?........

Is this a good hand or a bad hand? How can you tell? Dueces wild? Jacks wild? Go fish? Hearts? Spades? Bridge?…….. The number of games this could be a hand to are almost limitless. The cards don’t tell you what game you are playing, the game does.

Our use of language is exactly like that. And art is a language so this is specifically about art too. There isn’t one set of rules that governs all applications. Objective values in art and most other forms of communication are a hobgoblin of peculiar minds. What we mean we mean within the confines of how and why we are expressing ourselves. And there are so many rules that its almost a miracle we can figure each other out. Think of the possible types and expressions of art and you get a sense. How is it possible we convey meaning with art? One set of rules?

It may not be self evident what game we are playing, but we are masters of our native tongue, and there is often enough evidence that a person ‘speaking’ sensibly can provide the clues that will make sense for us too. We start out accepting different things as meaningful, but we can be bridge that gap. We have different values, but we can find sympathies and even crossovers. We can learn to read a new language and to speak it ourselves.

Narrowing the acceptable rules to just a handful is a misunderstanding of rules and a discredit to our native manipulation of rules. It stands in defiance of the fluidity of communication itself. Language is like a tool, and we use it for a variety of purposes. Each purpose asks us to use language in a more or less specific way. But each purpose asks different things, and we can even invent new purposes as well as innovate tools. So language can be thought of as doing many jobs, and each of these jobs performs a task in an occasionally different manner from other tasks. The point being that its not ‘the same‘ task in all cases.

Language is a tool kit for a variety of purposes. Imagine it like this. You can use a bowl to drink soup and eat chili, among other things. A plate is not as good for soup, but a cup may be less useful for chili. Are we drinking soup or eating chili? What vessel are we going to use? We almost always have options. Language is that vessel. Art is that vessel. So:

Rules? Don’t be a slave to rules. Ask first what we are trying to do, and then you may find there is more than one way of getting what you want. There can be a variety of tool uses that achieve our purpose. The purpose we have is the important thing, not the rules for using specific tools. A hammer is not governed by the rules for using a saw. Don’t put the cart before the horse…….

An hour or so after I posted that comment I saw a response to a different conversation in another thread. This was a facebook post about whether the theater needed to be meaningful in a particular way or even to be understood on some level to be successful. I had said:

Not every story is an exercise in meaning, and not every meaning is absolute. Sometimes meaning is important and other times its not. Sometimes one meaning is prominent and other times there are many things meant, many intentions, and none necessarily standing for the whole more than the others. And sometimes the meaning is open ended, and left purposely vague. Sometimes it is designed in such a way that it can only be completed by the audience. Sometimes it is an ending that only we ourselves can write.

A story can phase from the overt to the hidden, it can blend our own understanding with the intention of the authors. It can even be without intention. A story is not one thing but many. A story is both something finite and final and alive and evolving. If we get any part of that we will have given it a home in our minds, hearts, and souls…..

The person responding said:

“Oh for crying out loud. Theater is about communication. If you don’t want to communicate, keep the manuscript in your desk drawer instead of putting it on a stage.” (Apparently this guy teaches theater at a University)

My response was:

I agree that the theater is at least significantly about communication but it seems there is not one single sense in which it communicates. Is making a statement the same as engaging in a dialog? Is asking a question the same as pointing to possibilities? Is having an answer the same as laying out a scenario? Is giving one’s personal perspective the same as making universal claims? Is telling a joke the same as revealing bitter truths? Is giving us something to ponder the same as asking for advice? Is expressing oneself the same as communicating?

I’m just not sure you can leave it at theater being ‘about communication’ without accepting that communication takes many forms and that meaning is portrayed and invested differently depending on how and why things are communicative. If it were simple we wouldn’t have both comedies and tragedies. We wouldn’t have entertainment pieces and serious explorations of the human condition.

And if we can have this breadth of meaning it seems reasonable that communication can fail. It also seems that communication doesn’t need to be the point. Some things are worth saying even if they are likely to be misunderstood. We can express ourselves for a variety of purposes, not all of which are designed to ‘communicate’. You can say something to point things out and you can say things to deflect and draw away. Is subterfuge communication per se? You can cheer your successes to hide your shortcomings. You can speak your mind to cover your ignorance……. And you can make mistakes and be mistaken.

So communication, yes, but that still hasn’t said anything interesting.

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Stuff to think about, at least 🙂

Cheers!

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Posted in Art, Creative industry, metacognition | Leave a comment

Intention and Execution

So… more than one person is having difficulty with my recent posts. I put them out there, and undoubtedly I could have done things differently. I will take that blame and accept that my own intentions and their execution are further divided by what gets understood once these ideas are sent out in the world. As I’ve said plenty of times before, there is a sometimes radical disconnect between expression and communication.

And we thought being artists was hard! Making sense in a language most people don’t understand as we do, don’t comprehend as natives, the things we ourselves see and attempt to pass on are both elusive and illusory in the hands and minds of outsiders…. And the irony being that our own native spoken language only gives us the appearance of direct communication.

There is no ideal to communication. No exact meeting of minds. We do not fundamentally grasp what other people are saying simply by having the same words at our disposal. We approximate. The rules of interpretation are much looser than for things like mathematics and physics. There is no one right and obvious answer.

Spoken language is different. Sometimes the familiarity itself breeds misunderstanding. We look at the words themselves as manifesting the intention, and yet we mistake that intention all the time. It’s as if the intentions were located behind the words.

Our agreement in language is only imprecise. It is a gossamer thread on a breezy day. Convention overlaps harmoniously enough that we identify as a culture, as speakers of particular languages, but the veneer of our shared words hides many worlds. Our different assumptions and the staring places of incredibly diverse values and motivations lead us in often opposite ways.

Misunderstanding is like standing in an archery field: You are going about your business and some damn fool sends a volley close enough to almost hit you. You feel yourself threatened. Where you stand and what you stand for are under attack. Never mind that the archer was aiming at something entirely different and in fact may have hit precisely what she aimed at. You are more concerned with the close call, the brush back, and it certainly seems like your truths were being aimed at.

Because we all understand the world as we do, not as other people do, we are outsiders to each other in a fundamental sense. And so when someone says something that has the appearance of threatening our values it is only natural to read into the words that this-is-how-they-were-intended. We understand on our own terms, not always necessarily on the terms that others practice their own understanding. There can be happy agreement, and there usually is. But the blissful harmony is exposed for its fragility when things go wrong. Mostly we hope others are not entirely opaque to us and just get on with our business. La di da di da…..

.

Apparently my last few essays have been interpreted in drastically different ways from what I intended. I am concerned at how words so clear to me, that mean something specific to me, could so clearly mean something different to someone else.

So what did I say that I apparently only thought adequately expressed my intentions?

  • “being an artist is not like other jobs”
  • “making our art specifically as a means to earn a living confuses getting paid with making art.”
  • “Making a living as an artist is essentially a conflict of interest”
  • “Professional artists have both a calling and a job.”
  • “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…..”
  • “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?”
  • “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.”
  • “Just because it LOOKS like a marketplace good or service does not mean that we are always supposed to treat it that way.”
  • “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.”
  • “The more focused we are on the bottom line the less attention we have for the wonder.”
  • “What we think important may not be what others even find interesting.”
  • “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 boy was that ever a prophetic conclusion for that post!)

Now somehow several people took all this as me saying that ‘artists are prostitutes’ and ‘bad children’, when those scenarios were merely examples used to make my argument. The one just stated above. THAT was what I intended. They were not the argument itself. And saying that these examples reflect on issues that artists face at most says that we share similar difficulties. At most we are like these people in some respect. Not that we are them. The sense that artists like getting paid is something many of us have in common with people in EVERY profession. I was simply making the point that:

  • “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?”

And the answer is that for some of us certain things are too personal to make commerce easy. For others is is not. And that’s okay too. Far from making these people actual prostitutes it makes them like bankers and house painters, like landscapers and architects, like doctors and cabdrivers…. If you are not conflicted by selling the goods you have you are just like many other people in that regard. Amazingly and yet apparently problematically that makes you just like sex workers too, in addition to the bankers and cab drivers. The point behind using sex as an example is that

  1. it makes non-professional people uncomfortable as a marketplace value
  2. there is a whole industry that supports people doing it

The tension I am describing is that in the first instance some people have a value that is not connected to money, is compromised by it, and in the second that some people have a value that is dependent on money. People are motivated by different things. Right? And people who find themselves in the position of needing to place monetary value on things they hold dear for other reasons is what we call:

  • “a conflict of interest”

In other words,

  • “being an artist is not like other jobs” for some, at least,

and therefor for many,

  • “Professional artists have both a calling and a job.”

………….

Maybe this explains what I was suggesting a bit better? I take full responsibility that my words were so easily misunderstood. I was perhaps sacrificing clarity for the sake of a flowing exposition. But if it is still unclear that I am NOT calling artists ‘hookers’ or ‘bad children’ I invite anyone who still sees me saying those things to copy and paste any condemning passages or phrases from the original essays into the comments here. I want know where I went wrong, where my intentions were less clear, where I encouraged these misunderstandings, and any other information that will help me do a better job next time.

Artists serve many masters, and it is shortsighted to imagine the pull between placating them all is entirely smooth sailing. We have, often times,

  • “a conflict of interest”

And if some artists are steadfast in maintaining their sanity, that their daily practice does not thrust these troubles to the surface in a desperate and often schizophrenic scramble to appease many masters, that is not to say that others do not. Our own placid demeanor is no measure of the conflict writhing in the minds of other people. We are lucky if money is the biggest source of our internal conflict. We are lucky if our many masters do not end up tearing us down, as it does so many others….

R.I.P DFW

And if some out there still feel I am just making this stuff up, there has been decades of research on how these very issues play out for people. In fact, the ‘sex’ example is not even my own invention. If there still is difficulty understanding what I am getting at I can only direct you to this great article by a very smart guy who compiles some of the relevant research in psychology and studies done by behavioral economists. You can read that here:

The Overjustification Effect

All I can say is I tried. My intentions were pure, if my execution perhaps less so.

Peace all

Happy potting

Make beauty real

Make a difference that matters

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Posted in Art, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery | 1 Comment

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?

………………………………

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