39. Ninety-nine Things Right
Philip Cornelius came to Iowa City one year to give a lecture on a joint California/Japan ceramics show at the University Art Museum and got roped into giving a workshop for the Ceramics Department. For those of you unfamiliar with his pots, he works with meticulous delicacy to build vessels out of paper thin slabs of porcelain. He, himself, describes it as, “brain surgery.”
Among the many things I wrote down in my journal while observing his working methods and listening to him speak, the most memorable addresses the issue of error in art. His point, and he stressed it most forcefully, was that artists should not expect or require their audiences to overlook physical flaws in their work, no matter how small those flaws might be.
There may be a hundred different aspects to a work of art and you may well have done ninety-nine of those things well, but the one error, whatever it is, will inevitably clash with the overall composition and ruin the piece.
For graduate students struggling from one partial success to the next, this was not good news. Virtually any object we made had some aspect worthy of apology and as such, must be scored a failure in this man’s eyes. Was it even possible to achieve his standard of quality? Clearly it was important to try, and to not delude ourselves about the room for improvement in the objects we were making.
Details do matter. A single typo can spoil the effectiveness of a good resume or job application. A rough spot on the bottom of a mug can ruin the finish of a wonderful tabletop. A teapot with a cramped handle will scorch your fingers. Notice these things.
In defense of his humanity, Professor Cornelius later showed us slides of flawed pots that had somehow not been ruined by their flaws. Pots in which the unplanned for, the unintended, and the just plain wrong had created some new intriguing aesthetic neither jarring nor distasteful. He admitted that it can happen. But you must know that is it is wrong to expect it to happen.
Your audience, particularly the trained members of your audience, will notice everything about your work. Everything. They can not help it. Flaws are not by nature secretive. See what they see and don’t kid yourself about what’s important. Find solutions. Improve your work.
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