Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Three Wrongs

98. The Three Wrongs

This essay was part of a collection of three that I submitted for my Master of Arts written thesis at the University of Iowa in 1988.

The sign reads: THE THREE WRONGS

It’s not an elaborate sign, nor is it an elaborate message, but it speaks volumes. It might adorn the office or workspace of any hard-working person, but it happens to hang in the studio of a graduate student studying ceramics.
For most people, Graduate School brings to mind intense scholarship in almost any field except that of ceramics. Making pots, with all its traditions of folk craft, and its many menial aspects, hardly seems like the work of University professors and expensively educated intellectuals. Nonetheless, the field of ceramics has been advanced to the realm of Art, and Art to the realm of higher education.
Of course, the three wrongs apply as well to life in general, regardless of the intensity or flavor of each person’s particular niche.
Most people do not really get enough work done, no matter how busy they seem to keep themselves. Much of our time is spent on simple motion, comings and goings, or wasted on the immobility of electronic entertainment. Even when we ‘work’ our results are often woefully impermanent or unnecessary.
‘Work’ implies difficulty and effort. For the potter, that often means long hours and a large quantity of finished pots. But it can also refer to extensive reading, research, experimentation, and the struggle to achieve quality. It can mean the heaviest of physical labor and the most subtle of aesthetic explorations. And the work of students often extends into coursework in other fields, financial jugglings, and exhausting self-doubt.
For some, work also includes family, a spouse and children, whose needs you can not go back to satisfy at some more convenient time. The same holds true for pots. You can not go back and do the job correctly later; clay dries, kilns get filled, and the season passes. There can be no adequate or sufficient level of love to devote to such things. It is simply wrong to devote too little.
Always, when a person is working, there are a variety of forces influencing that work. For students, their teachers dominate; for employees, their bosses; for the self-employed, their perceptions of the market. So often, people do what they think other people want done, even when originality is eagerly sought.
The classic example is the politician, saying the things that each audience wants to hear, stroking each set of special interests, and softening all public statements to avoid offense. Compromise and tact are very civilized attributes, but each of us must realize that our integrity (or more importantly, the public perception of our integrity) is at stake.
Art, especially, has come to focus narrowly on the artist, on issues of authorship, authenticity, and individual genius. Lacking any single standard of quality of beauty for works of art, patrons must now consider the market value of the artists themselves. Originality and individual character become the artist’s products, even more than craftsmanship and skill.
Of course, if your name is the unique commodity, your works must be clearly recognizable as yours, and yours alone. To work in someone else’s style, no matter how exemplary that style is, means falling into their shadow and losing your significance as an individual. This is, of course, short-sighted and unreasonable, but nonetheless, it exists. The highest prices in the art world are only tangentially related to the direct importance of the object. The bulk of the “value” relates to the historical and fetishistic importance of the artist.
In the academic setting, students often have difficulty finding an appropriate distance between their own work and that of their teachers. At one extreme, the two products are identical, differing only in the greater craftsmanship and experience of the teacher. At the other extreme, the student rebels completely, refusing to accept any limitations, guidance, or teaching. Though the image is romantic, recalling icons of misunderstood artistic genius, in practice, the attitude is short-sighted, ignorant, and wasteful.
Any teacher may pose a problem, even a fairly restrictive one, and the good student can find room within the limitations for an individual solution. The obligation remains on the student, as well as on the professional artist, to find solutions that reflect their own values and experiences. No two people would naturally, without external constraints, draw the world the same, or debate an issue the same, or run their homes the same. Often, however, we forget to define our true limitations and creatively utilize the spaces in between. We just meet the minimum requirements, or submit what we know will be acceptable. We get by, wasting opportunities to challenge assumptions, to expand the potential of materials, and to do our own stuff.
Sometimes this waste, this failing to do our own stuff, is a matter of fear. So often I have heard myself explain to others that, “I was going to do that, but I was afraid that….” The phrase has even started to ring alarm bells in my mind, for it reeks of cowardice and waste.
If I had a legitimate justification for my inaction, I would say, “I was going to do that, but I realized that something else would be better, or something definite would make it impossible.” I would have a reason. I would be operating from knowledge. The phrase “I was afraid that,” implies ignorance, doubt, and an unwillingness to test the situation to reach actual results. “I was afraid that,” is a clear statement of defeat, defeat without so much as a struggle.
Not accepting challenges can be a problem in any life. Even as artists, we can not do everything that comes to mind. But we do not grow, as individuals, without trying to increase our capabilities from day to day. Perhaps, the challenge is like the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” or maybe it’s just a matter of something new and unfamiliar. Whatever the life, we do not get much credit for those things we can already handle easily. Nor can we give ourselves the right to be content with those skills. The excitement in life – one might even say life, itself – is solely driven by the joys of the new and the old seen anew.
The idea that children are immature, or incomplete, adults can be very damaging in this regard, for it conditions us to believe that childhood is for learning and adulthood is for something else. However, our minds and bodies never really stop developing and changing. Adulthood is merely an increasingly vague point rather near the beginning of that lifelong process. Work, personal expressions, and a variety of challenges await each of us, every day, and it will always be wrong to fear or deny them.

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