Friday, September 11, 2009


A while back, I posted a somewhat random Facebook status: "Mastering is just another word for enslaving." I've been reading a lot of William Blake in preparation for my PhD comprehensive exams and dissertation, and had in mind Blake's dictum (if there is such a thing for the most perversely upside-down mind this side of Lewis Carroll), "I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's."

As I was reading, I happened to look down and see a book of Carrie's, "Mastering Cone 6 Glazes." It struck me as an odd title for a book about ceramics; even though I get the word "masterpiece," and have a master's degree in literature, I can't think of art, craft, or interpretation as something to be "mastered." I'm a pretty thorough postmodernist, at least in that I see the inquiry of art as being something reticulated, recursive, and self-perpetuating. There can be no mastery, either over art or over the critique of art, because to truly "master" anything is to close it off, to define it finally, and to end its growth and evolution.

Then Carter Gillies challenged me with a response:

"And yet not everything mastered becomes enslaved, and not everything enslaved is truly mastered. I would hate to think I was enslaving clay when my relationship to it seems more a liberation and a facilitation of its potentiality. However, that being said, some potters ARE callous slavers who use the medium in entirely self serving exercises. In art, it seems that to be a master is more like being a lover than a slaver. A master artist often creates as an act of devotion not just the imposition of selfish desires. It may even be more true that the master is a 'slave' to his medium than the reverse."

That paradox is something that a Blakean can get behind - the master becomes a slave to his medium even as he seeks to enslave it.

The way Blake presents it, we really don't have a choice as we whether we are "enslaved" or not. We are human, and thus we are limited - by the capabilities of our bodies, by the circumstances of our lives, by the environments which sustain or hinder us, by the quality of our minds, and on and on. We can't be all-expansive; we can't be gods. So, whether we realize it or not, we are always enslaved by something. We can choose to be aware of our limitations and create the thing that enslaves us, or we can remain ignorant, pretending to be free and be all the more enslaved. We can learn to work with our master, or we can resist. We can facilitate, or block.

I also like what Carter says about devotion. To me, saying that we are all enslaved by something is saying we all worship something: to the truly enslaved, the slaver is a god, all-powerful and terrible, to be feared. To the creatively enslaved though, the slaver can be a god we commune with, a god that sustains us.

Blake had much to say about self-serving art. Throughout his career he scorned commercial engravers who, unlike himself, would take any job they could get regardless of the quality of the project, and he despised painters who turned their talents to flattering the aristocracy and to painting fashionable, jingoistic historical scenes. And part of his bitterness in his later years came from being passed up, time and again, in favor of more popular or commercially viable craftsmen.

It would be nice to pursue this line of thought further - what exactly is "mastery" of an art or craft like pottery?


carter gillies said...

I almost forgot to check back. I didn't want to be the first one to post a comment since we two got the ball rolling, but it looks like we won't have much help in this discussion.

The perspective I have is that the more you understand a medium like clay the more control you have. Without it you are a victim of those limitations you refer to. But with control, mastery if you will, you can either bend the material more thoroughly to your will or you can achieve a relationship of give and take. This can have the potential to result in more of a collaboration than the dogmatic imposition of an artist's will. Art can be a rigorous mining of one's ideas, or of certain possibilities of the material itself, or it can be a free flowing exploration where control means supporting the material in its unique attempts at expression. Think of making art as something like being a parent. You can try to mold your child into an expression of your own values, with the same biases, prejudices, beliefs and even the same career path. A strictly determined and stifled product of your own imagination. OR, your child can be lovingly encouraged to explore its own voice and interests, where what is important is the child's happiness not how it conforms to the parent's idea of proper development. Some people's art is all about 'me the artist'. So much art is entirely self absorbed and self important. These are the slavers. They own their art the way a master owns a slave. The lovers, on the other hand, are like a married couple where give and take is a mutual redefining of the future.

So I would like to say that to be a master of clay can sometimes mean that you are only there to set it free. For me mastery means that all the years of practice honing skills and understanding only count when they are used to uncover the potential hidden within this other.

Of course I am probably over romanticizing this. But I do see that mastery can create a clear division between the users and the collaborators, between the self obsessed and the harmonizers, between the chainers and the liberators. And without a serious level of mastery an artist is a slave to incomprehension. And without this understanding an artist has no choice but to interact with the medium in a way that is dominated by their fumbling obtuseness. A non master is therefor a slaver of the material not by choice but through a lack of compassion.

So the interesting thing as I see it is that you can only rise above the cycle of being a slave and acting as a slaver through attaining a certain level of mastery but only then in applying it in a specific way. As I see it, this isn't just about 'art' but is a question about how we live our lives, our self awareness, and how we fit in society. I find it infinitely sad that so many people are content to live by enacting stereotypes and are content to let others do their thinking for them. Everyone has creative capacity within themselves and yet we so often fail to live up to our potential as compassionate liberators. I'm sure I have just opened a whole can of worms, but this is what I have been thinking since I first came to understand how important art could be as an attitude toward the world. Perhaps I am wrong and the artist liberator is nothing more than a merely benevolent slavemaster, but I would choose benevolence over self absorption any day.



Gabe Sealey-Morris said...

Part of my trouble with this idea, I suppose, is that I'm not really a practitioner of what used to be called the "plastic" arts - I'm a writer who dabbles in pottery. And the medium I have mastery over is a very different medium.

One of the most important differences, to my mind, is that words are ubiquitous - endless, in fact. You can always write another word. If a piece of writing isn't turning out, you can always write more until something worthwhile does appear.

But you cannot create more clay. You can wedge up a new piece, you can start over, but you are stuck with the clay you have. If you were a marble sculpter, it would be the same - once you've chipped away some rock, you can't put it back.

So mastery of a plastic medium requires a different relationship than that I am used to. It has to be a give and take situation with a real thing. Words can be cut without pain or damage; clay retains every mark put on it, in some way or another. So mastery of clay means learning to work with it. Mastery of writing means only learning to work with yourself - to learn how to keep putting words down, and to learn how to separate yourself from them enough to cut them and rewrite.

Mastery of ceramics is physical as much as it is mental. Mastery of words is entirely psychological - the only thing that can stop you is your own mind. But that clay, man. It can be a bastard.

carter gillies said...

I had to break my comment into 2 parts to submit it. Part one:

Interesting tangent to take this conversation! I recognize the distinction you are pointing out. Working in the sphere of words and ideas is 'safe' in the sense that everything is amenable to revision, but clay has a working shelflife beyond which it is done for good. My question is that if using language is as much an activity IN the world as using clay, shouldn't mastery in both cases refer to a facility in dealing with it? Aren't the difficulties you point out more a reflection of particular stumbling blocks rather than any infringement on the capacity for mastery? In some sense your comparison is not so much between apples and oranges as between a ripe apple and an unripe barely formed one. Because we are so at home using words as adults we take for granted that we all are already, to a certain extent, its masters. The potter who struggles with the material is more like the child who hasn't gotten a handle on the use of certain words. The mastery you point out in your own case, achieving the discipline and distance to make ruthless cuts and to reorganize phrasings, is really quite similar to the abilities of a true master of a material like clay. The external problems of an unfamiliar clay body, a misfiring kiln, the wrong tools, etc., are more akin to attempting to use words in a foreign language or unfamiliar technical jargon. Working in the sphere of words that you are the master of only means you are working in your comfort zone. Pushing those limits is every bit as consequential as a pottery master challenging him/herself in new technical areas or exploring new aesthetic horizons.

I think a good example to look at is the comparison of the normal adult language user and the traditional potter/crafts person. In both cases there is a kind of mastery that gives the individual command of certain mostly well defined circumstances. The forms of expression are not always adventurous, and the ideas behind them not always challenging, but there is a comfort zone in being able to handle what needs to get done. The individuals who are artistic in their lives are marked by a willingness to evolve and to break the patterns of conformity. An artist is always someone willing to take risks.

carter gillies said...

Part two:

And there will always be missteps and mistakes along the way. My mangling three pots first thing yesterday morning might be something like trying to write something decent before you had your breakfast coffee (One's mastery cramped by uncooperative biology!). I also don't think that words are "endless" in any important sense that distinguishes them from what gets expressed in clay, and certainly not as a reflection of the relative capacities for mastery. A potter running out of clay is only like a writer filling up all his notebooks (or maybe losing power to his computer the way things are these days). Both can still work through ideas without needing to express them. But maybe the writer can then still express the ideas by speaking them? Well, the potter can also take out a sketchbook and play around with expressing his ideas as well. I think focusing on the substance of writing and the substance of pots confuses things. Mastery as an ability is not in any way comparable to the finiteness of what is mastered. The picture of words as something psychological in nature and pottery as something concrete only feeds into the perception that the activity of the one is fundamentally unconstrained and virtually self generating (if not always disciplined), and that the activity of the other, simply by being physical, is by definition limited. The picture of thinking as some disembodied, mysterious, ethereal, quasi-gaseous process that happens only in the head (if anywhere) merely ignores that thinking and using language are activities that take place in the world, were learned by engaging in the world, and are used to solve problems in the world. It is a very misleading picture. The writer in isolation is but an artist on his own with a ready supply of materials. Not really so different from the hermit potter on top of the mountain.

I would make the case that mastery in both instances means something very much the same. It may get applied to different endeavors, each with their own inherent characteristics, but the CAPACITY for mastery is itself a reflection of the facility of an individual confronting the world. And you can do this artistically, or you can run the grooves that countless others before you have taken.

carter gillies said...

Ok, that was a bunch of drivel. Sorry about that. Here's another stab at it:

Mastery of words and clay are both exhibited by what gets done with them. The medium of clay mastery is, in fact, clay and the process of demonstrating the mastery is physical. The medium of word mastery is words, and the process of exercising mastery is speaking them or writing them down as well as stringing them out in one's mind. A piece of pottery going wrong is about the same as a pencil losing its point, a speaker getting laryngitis. The mastery hasn't changed but the ability to express it is diminished. You either have mastery or you do not, and are only aided or hindered by the means of expressing it. You might argue that pencils and a voice box are incidental to the mastery of words, but mastering the tools of writing is surely not unimportant to writing, and forming words in the mouth to speaking them? It is sometimes easy to believe that words have this 'pure' existence, and therefor that to master them is wholly unrelated to the other furniture of one's life. But if some 'pure idea' lurks behind the manipulation of words, then surely this can't be what we call mastery. Mastery seems more like the skill with which we use our tools, and the results we are able to effect either demonstrate this or do not.

Have I just droned on again to no point? I hope I made at least a little sense this time. I guess the only real point I am making is that what happens with a particular piece of clay may or may not exhibit one's mastery. It only looks different from words because with clay there often is no going back.