Thursday, March 15, 2012

Aesthetics and Action: Being Instrumental in the World

Someone asked me the other day, "what goals would you like to set for yourself?" It was easy for me to say "I want to see the good in things, see beauty, hear nice sounds, and smell nice smells. I want the bad things I see to seem more trivial and I want to focus on the good."


"That's nice," she answered. "Anything else?"


I had to think about that one for awhile. I have to admit I was in a bad mood that day and just seeing, hearing, and smelling nice things seemed to be adequate. But it wasn't.


Because when I woke up the next morning I had my first inkling of clay sculpture work as a problem-solving tool. I realized, maybe for the first time, that what I've been doing with clay is more than an exercise in aesthetics (though that seems to be a perfectly good goal in itself!). I guess I awoke to the realization that the work I'm doing is "real" work, that is, instrumental work. Instrumental work in terms of my own development and perhaps instrumental in its effect toward others. And for a goal, perhaps a lifelong goal, being instrumental in the world is important.

Pink begonia

So what is instrumental work? Long ago when I studied Russian (and later spoke it for many years), I had to learn to use the instrumental case. The short explanation: changing word endings of nouns to indicate that they were the instrument of an activity.

Study  Shape for "The First Billion Years"

So for example I sculpt by means of my hands. The hands are the instrument.

Study Shape for  "The First Billion Years"

But I think it goes deeper than that. It's obvious that you can shape a piece of clay with your hands. And in some ways, it's perfectly appropriate and desirable to exert instrumentality in this way. Do you influence anything further? Is it important?

Study Surface for "The First Billion Years"

Good questions that I think are worth exploring. For example in my project "The First Billion Years" I do hope to influence viewers to think about the extremely long period of evolutionary history. By making a thousand pieces (or about 5000 to represent the span of life on Earth--each piece as a million years), I hope to engage people in an exploration of deep time.

Study for "The First Billion Years."

Is that instrumental? At one level, yes.

What about my day job?

As a professor, I'm in the position to influence peoples' thinking and at the same time, I find myself (I think we all do, as teachers), in the frustrating role of being patently unable to influence others, especially the undergraduates I engage in thoughtful scientific discourse every day. There's a frustration for you!

So it comes back to the self. How to be instrumental there? In previous posts I've talked about how clay sculpture leads to certain problems and solves others. It provides a riposte for challenges that occur outside of the clay, challenges that can consume us on a day-to-day basis.

Study for "The First Billion Years."

So, what is to be done? Stick with it I think, go for the ride as far as it will go, enjoy the scenery, keep making art, engage the challenges, and be as light and unsinkable as a ping pong ball floating on the ocean, but an instrumental one.

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