On Surface and Substance…

I am going to start with a general proposition. I am going to theorize about it. And then I am going to get to the reason for the statement. I do no want to let the impetus overshadow the discussion. I do not want to lend too much credence to a few voices (even if they stand in for a larger chorus that I know exists).

Here is the proposition: Far too many quilters mistake surface for substance.

On one level I mean this quite simply; style, the surface attributes of things, is not necessarily the same as substantive communication. It can be, but it can also be simple mimicry. The look of something does not necessarily convey the entirety of its being, at least not in a single glance. Sometimes understanding takes work.

But there is something more important at stake here: there is a radical difference between superficial commentary and substantive dialogue. Opinion is fine, but it only becomes communicatively meaningful as it progresses to questions of why that opinion is held. To insist that one’s taste is in fact the proper benchmark for value is not only egotistical, it is fundamentally dismissive of the thoughts of others. It is in fact an imposition rather than an act of communication. It denies the possibility of value in others in advance of any genuine exchange.

Your opinion is yours, and you have every right to it, but the moment you speak you become part of a community, and I believe there are serious responsibilities that come with that. Those responsibilities have nothing to do with moral, aesthetic, or conceptual judgments regarding the specifics of what others make, do, or say. The responsibility comes before that: it is the basic act of respect. No one need respect what I do or say, but I do expect a basic respect for my right to have my own judgment, the same right one demands when offering an opinion publicly. To speak together is fundamentally an act of respect, and to deny someone that right is a sort of violence, one that cannot be tolerated.

So, what is this all about?

Recently an image of the Give a Fuck bee quilt at QuiltCon sparked a bit of controversy over at Bad Ass Quilters Society on FB. Of course it did because people have problems with profanity. I am not going to go into the quilt here per se because that has been done well elsewhere and I’d rather let the makers speak for themselves.


Some people approved, others didn’t. That is the nature of things. But a few phrases I read really disturbed me:

“Why in the world would you want that quilt, it’s an awful word and should not be said or seen in public.”

“ick…not a quilt I want in my Christian home.”

“I don’t think anything about that is artistic and certainly not something I would want to post on my page. Sad that someone chooses such a shallow path.”

“For me personally, please note that I said personally, that type of art…just like the piss Jesus, really serves no purpose.”

So, time to put my analytical cap on. I want to go through each of these comments to explore just how they breach the basic component of respect that ought to go into any commentary on the work of others:

1. “it should not be said or seen in public”
While this comment refers to the word Fuck, it by extension claims that this quilt should not be seen in public. This is an explicit advocacy of censorship, an assumption that this person’s sense of valuable content should supercede not only that of the makers of this quilt, but everyone else’s. It assumes that all values should be identical to his/hers, and if they are not then those values are wrong.

2. “not a quilt I want in my Christian home.”
The implication here is that the makers, and anyone who might like it, are somehow un-Christian. As I devout Atheist I’m entirely cool with being un-Christian, but I still find this statement profoundly offensive to other people of faith whether they be Christian or any other religion. I’m pretty sure Jesus would not be sharing his wine with this person.

3. “Sad that someone chooses such a shallow path.”
This comment begs the question of whether the commenter actually spent any time really examining the quilt, looking at all of the linguistic and typographic variations used in the quilt and what they might signify? Did the commenter actually ask themselves indeed why one might make a quilt using the word Fuck, what the implications might be? Was there any inquiry at all, or did the commenter reduce the people who made the quilt down to a stereotype of a person and or persons who might use the word Fuck? If so, did that stereotype include me, and my wife? I wonder who that stereotypical profane person is. To assume shock is the only reason to use that word is to dismiss the speakers a priori, which is profoundly insulting.

4. “just like the piss Jesus, really serves no purpose.”
This begs two questions: Just what is the purpose of art, and how much does this commenter actually know about the piece titled Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano? The second question, regarding Piss Christ may only interest me, but in my book it is one of the most sensitive and beautiful condemnations of the commercialization of faith I have ever seen. The first, on the other hand, is more broadly serious. I am always disturbed by how easily people will impose their notions of art on others even as they reject any other assertion of its purpose or value by others. As an art academic, someone who has studied, practiced, and taught art at the highest levels for the past twenty years I find statements like this so distressing; they seem to undercut everything I have worked for over my career, and understanding of art that can move past the superficial glance and knee-jerk reaction to an examination of art as a meaningful contribution to the larger society, a form that can speak of things both exceedingly grand and intimately small.

So, that’s where things stood until two hours ago when this was posted:

“Disgusting….I would be embarrassed to be associated with someone that thinks that that is art in any form. Just shows what society is willing to lower themselves to. DISGUSTiNG!!!”

“I seriously hope you are kidding that you would make your son the f*** quilt….You shouldn’t be allowed to be a mother if you would really do that….I’m astounded as to what people are teaching their children.”

Honestly, I do not think I need to even say a word about these comments, but I will. I hope that these offend your very sensibility of human decency. I hope you look at them and see pure intolerance. You see a very personal attack on another human being, their basic moral standing and their fitness to be a parent. You see comments that completely dismiss anything different or foreign, and demand acceptance of a singular worldview. You see radical prejudice. You see hate.

This, everyone is at stake when we speak, when we use words incautiously. I have been saying this again and again on my blog: words matter. Usually I mean that with regard to grand conceptual themes, but today I mean it in a simple and fundamental way. Words are how we express our thoughts, and simple, narrow words betray simple, narrow thoughts. When we toss out words superficially, without careful examination we also shut down our minds. We reduce ourselves to stereotypes of ourselves as we deny the value of others.

Disagreement is a wonderful thing, but it only has value if we explore why and try to come to an understanding of one another. Anything short of that is unkind, unfair, and unjust. To those who insist on mistaking surface for substance I have two words, and I’m pretty sure you know what they are…



Final Note: I want to say that I think the administrators of BAQS did an exemplary job of handling this. The early comments, while in aggregate disturbing to me in terms of the quilting community, should have been left to the community to discuss, as they were. But in the case of the final comment, the questioning of the fitness of a person to be a parent, they stepped in and addressed the impropriety of such comments. This essay is not intended to stand as any sort of official statement, but is what I hope to be a considered response from a member of the quilting community concerned over how we discuss our practices and regard each other as practitioners.

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40 Responses to On Surface and Substance…

  1. 1
    Virginia says:

    Fuck yeah. It’s so strange to me that sounds or shapes such as letters in a particular configuration can evoke such judgment; usually in the form of morality.

    I appreciate your post and the people who understand there is room for every expression.

  2. 2
    Wendy says:

    Thomas – I very much enjoy your blog posts even if I don’t often leave a comment…they are so thoughtful, so relevant and I thank you for them. I wish I could say I am surprised re: the reactions of some people to the Fuck quilt…to me, it is an amazing work of art which has a lot of meaning (I’ve read what the creators have said about the piece – brilliant). I also just wanted to say thank you for this: “…but I still find this statement profoundly offensive to other people of faith whether they be Christian or any other religion. I’m pretty sure Jesus would not be sharing his wine with this person.” I am a Christian who is so ashamed of some of the things that are said in the name of Christianity. The intolerance, hatred, and “holier than thou” attitude that seems so pervasive these days is NOT what Christianity is about…it is certainly not what I am about. I wish so much that people would stop thinking that their way of viewing the world is the only “correct” way of viewing the world. So sad to me. I am glad you are putting your thoughts out there and my wish is that it will cause people to reflect on their words more carefully.

  3. 3
    Libs says:

    “When we toss out words superficially, without careful examination we also shut down our minds.” This statement nails it. I feel as though, not just in the quilting community but in North America as a whole, so many people aren’t using their brains anymore. Not questioning things or using critical thinking skills. It downright scares me.
    Your blog posts make my day. I hope I get to meet you someday.

  4. 4
    Susan Hogue Lawson says:

    Thank you Thomas. Truth- eloquently said.

  5. 5
    Lisa Newcomer says:

    By the gods, man, can I give you a hug? This is the BEST response yet! Those fucking opinionated pointy nosed intolerant humans, well, they make me intolerant!

    Seriously, I loved reading this. Bravo!

  6. 6
    Andres says:

    One would think a member of a FB group called ‘bad-ass’ would be OK with swear words. Not very bad ass, IMHO.

  7. 7
    Carly says:

    Lovely thoughts! The Fuck quilt is a beautiful inspiration, and I’m happy to see it defended so intelligently! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    (Also, I had never heard of the Piss Christ before and I’m really happy to have learned about it.)

  8. 8
    Mary C says:

    No, the F word quilt is not to my taste at all. I recognize the skill that went into its making. The F word seemed to be used for its own sake, and for shock value. Personally, I think that LOVE would have been a better four-letter word. I also think that the use of the F word is beneath a person who is so obviously a bright person. I believe there are better ways to express one’s concerns. Besides, A in BAQS stands for a three letter word! 😀

    With LOVE,

    • 8.1
      Marta S. says:

      Mary, though I wasn’t personally offended by the Fuck quilt (a good friend of mine contributed a block, in fact!), I think your idea of making a similar quilt with the word “love” is beautiful.

      • Colleen says:

        Thank you Mary! I am a little offended thought that people who had negative reactions are condemed. We dont know what that word has meant to people in their lives. I understand using a word with negative connotations in a positive way. But where is the understanding and compassion for those who reacted so strongly. I find in todays world that if you dont agree with the so called majority then you are wrong. BTW Jesus would drink his wine with them, because Jesus is about love and forgiveness and not condemnation. ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’ John 8:7

        • thomas says:

          Please note that not once did I condemn anyone for their opinion. My problem is with the implications of how they do so, the implications of their words. No-one has to like this quilt or want to see it or anything of the sort. But when it shifts to condemning the maker I have a problem. And then to claim a right to not be condemned for expressing condemnation is hypocritical.

          The right to be offended by this quilt does not give the maker the right to question the maker’s fitness as a parent, to question the maker’s fitness as a person of faith, or to dictate social morality on a global scale. Expressing one’s reaction is different that proscribing another person’s creative rights.

          Furthermore there were plenty of other comments in that thread that expressed concern over or disagreement with the Give a Fuck quilt that I did not comment on. Most of the comments expressed their opinion without stepping across fundamentally problematic lines. These, on the other hand, resorted to specific devices with deeply troubling components.

          I have no problem with personal opinions; what bothers me is how people apply them. I ask you to once more read my words carefully and cautiously, to consider them well. Not once did I condemn anyone for not liking this quilt, and I resent your mischaracterization of my words.

  9. 9
    gab-fab says:

    you’ve said so much so well here. thank you! I especially like “To insist that one’s taste is in fact the proper benchmark for value is not only egotistical, it is fundamentally dismissive of the thoughts of others.” and the notion (which I agree with entirely) that such assertions are acts of violence.

    I’ve recently left FB in part to shield myself from such violence whether directed at me or not. Now I’m going to have a think about returning to the conversation!

  10. 10
    Adrianne says:

    Thomas, I think you (and other members of the quilting community like C) are doing a fantastic job of making people THINK about quilting. I’m really enjoying your recent posts and am feeling more and more inspired to make quilts that are more about meaning and less about pretty (although I will never entirely step away from making quilts just for the joy of creating something I find beautiful). Personally, I find the “Give a Fuck” quilt completely joyous, but I can understand why others do not – I just wish they could express why they don’t like it in a respectful way.

  11. 11
    Marta S. says:

    I appreciate your breaking down *why* these comments are offensive rather than labeling the commenters “sticks in the mud” and insulting them in return, as I saw happening. That type of discourse might as well be held in a hamster wheel. Thanks for backing up your opinion with a solid foundation (psst, your intellect is showing) and giving depth to the discussion.

  12. 12

    Bravo 🙂 Wholeheartedly agree with your wonderfully worded response. But I did have to laugh at the fact that comments like that were found on the “Bad Ass Quilters Society” where, and I quote their page,
    “The world needs more bad ass quilters. Diverse voices that challenge the accepted notion of who quilting and needle artists should be with the idea that there is room for many ways to express individuality in this medium.”
    Deary me!

  13. 13
    Skye says:

    Thank you, once again, for your intelligent words & your shining reason in a country that has briefly (we shall hope)forgotten about the principles of reasoned discourse.
    It is a sad commentary that the motivating forces behind any work of art are often never considered, We tend to react & move on. Perhaps this little kerfluffle will call people to stop & consider before blurting out an opinion.

  14. 14
    Deedee says:

    I am not a prude, but in my own life, I use the f bomb sparingly. I know people say that it is just a word and if it’s used enough becomes commonplace. I say I need a word that I keep in reserve for when I need it. I used it a lot in my youth, but found when I really needed something to express my anger/ frustration/ disbelief at humanity and stupidity in general, there was nothing left.
    As for the quilt, it has a lot of fabulous quilting and as a quilter I appreciate the work involved, but whether it was that word, or love, or cheeseburger, it’s not my thing. It was made for it’s shock value and I’m sure the makers are happy with the attention given to it. It will be discussed for years. George Carlin would have loved it!

  15. 15
    Victor says:

    Dude! You have a way with words! It’s funny, I posted the give a fuck quilt on my facebook page and instagram and everybody loved it.

    Stay Gold ponyboy Stay Gold

    Quilt or Die Mothafucka’s!

    • 15.1

      Victor!.. I would have known the top of that head anywhere. So glad to see that you are here with Thomas. It was great getting to meet you in Angela’s classroom! Do you do FB?

  16. 16
    thomas says:

    I want to stop and point something out here. All opinions about a work are welcome; that is the nature of discussion and debate. On the other hand I am nervous about stepping over to statements regarding the intent of other makers, the presumption to know why something was made. To say that the quilt in questions was made for shock value is different than saying it utilized shock for a purpose.

    To say that something should have been done differently, the way you would have done it, is also somewhat beyond the point. That would have been a different quilt, and what we have here under consideration is this one. We should try to understand it for what it is, and then appreciate it or not.

    Statements about a maker’s intent require very careful consideration and are best left to the actual maker. That said, critiquing the object, how you respond to it and how you see it fitting into the world at large, is what it is all about.

    • 16.1
      jafabrit says:

      I really enjoyed your post. you are indeed right about intent. My contribution to the quilt had nothing to do with shock value. As an artist and embroiderer I found it an interesting challenge to come up with a unique and creative way to present a word. Two of the letters were my own design and I spent considerable time coming up with them, and the u was from a 1600’s anthropomorphic alphabet. What is astonishing is that some feel being offended is a licence to demonize and/or victimize others personally. For me the quilt is a reminder of the power words have and to not underestimate them. As for the word itself, not one of my favourites, I much prefer bollocks 🙂

      • jafabrit says:

        I would also like to add that what made me happy was the challenge of doing it, but all the attention thereafter is a byproduct, not a creative goal. I do like that it has inspired conversations about what is art etc.

  17. 17
    Donna says:

    I use the word more than I >should<, but really try not to swear around my colleagues. It made me smile to try to politely explain the 'cluster fuck' block to a treasured colleague who is not from our continent. I also found the words to George Carlin's routine on just how versatile a word it is as my friend was unfamiliar with Mr Carlin's work. OMG, we were raised on him! A bold and brazen quilt with lots of great lettering, color and quilting. What's not to like?

  18. 18
    Anna says:

    I once found a piece of paper on the table in the living room of my home and I immediately gathered the kids up and gave them a lecture about using inappropriate words and accused one of them of writing this on the paper
    “F C K, the only thing missing is U.” I was very upset that the kids all denied writing this. When I complained to my husband, he gave me a big grin and said “What you didn’t like the letter I wrote to you, after I left it right where you would be sure to find it?” He thought he was very funny and the kids had to agree. I had to back up and rethink a few things! This is the only letter he ever wrote me.

  19. 19
    Barbie K In NC says:

    In the world of Art the quilt did what is was meant to do, Inspire and/or Invoke conversation. Kudos to all involved. We all have our own meanings for so many words…for instance “Love” can warm a heart, however it can also cause thoughts of terror, loss, fear, etc. I can think of a lot “worse” words to offend people if they want to be offended…just saying.
    Thank you Thomas for your “words” and Donna, thank you for the George Carlin memory jolt! B-)

  20. 20
    Amy says:

    1. “it should not be said or seen in public”
    While this comment refers to the word Fuck, it by extension claims that this quilt should not be seen in public. This is an explicit advocacy of censorship, an assumption that this person’s sense of valuable content should supercede not only that of the makers of this quilt, but everyone else’s. It assumes that all values should be identical to his/hers, and if they are not then those values are wrong.

    Caveat: I made one of the blocks.

    The quote that you analyzed and that I quoted is for me at the heart of what is America’s biggest problem right now especially: “all values should be identical to his/hers…” To my way of thinking, this is at the core of the reproductive rights “kerfluffle” and gun rights & if I spend enough time thinking about it, probably quite a few other polarizing political issues.

  21. 21
    Linda says:

    I’m glad that you are willingly listening and then processing in a manner that seems truly interested I understanding this controversy. My children also use this word and it always bothers me. Perhaps this is because when I was growing up using this word was seen as an act of disrespect towards those it was directed to so I’m suspicious that is why people may be having such visceral reactions. It was absolutely taboo and its almost hard to believe how acceptable it is now in many circles. Here’s a deal: I’ll try to age gracefully and accept how language evolves without being personally offended and those using the word can cut some slack and understand how entrenched our feelings are.

    • 21.1
      thomas says:

      The problem here, at least for me, is not that people dislike or disapprove of the quilt, but the implications of their statements, the extension of their response to universal levels or to statements about the maker. Do not mistake my words; I am all for people having opinions, but that is very different from extending those opinions to proscriptions of what should or should not be made or discussions of the value of the maker as a human being.

      Nobody is required to like anything, but how we express our opinions matters. There is a huge difference between saying, “I cannot stand that quilt; it is an affront to my sense of decency,” and stating that someone who would make this quilt, “shouldn’t be allowed to be a mother.” If we as a community cannot understand that difference I fear that we are a community in name only.

  22. 22
    Sharon says:

    I think the quilt is made beautifully and is indeed a work of art. I am by and far not a prude and know people use that word a lot. My grown kids use it because they want to see me blush. Anyway the only ‘problem’ (if it is indeed a problem) is that it was hung in a public place where children might have seen it. This takes away my right to not have my young children exposed to that word. It does not gve anyone the right to bash the quilt as a work of art. But someone has the right to question where it was displayed. I am even ok with someone posting it on FB, since that’s being posted to your friends and family. I am even OK with it being displayed at guild meeting, but I am uneasy about the public forum that it was displayed at.

  23. 23
    Alice says:

    So what if young children see it? Then you have an opportunity to have whatever discussion you want to have with them about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of that word. Believe me, if they’re old enough to go to school, someone in their class has already conned them into saying the word “cuff” backwards. “Protecting the children” is merely an excuse. Don’t hide behind it. “Fuck” is in the dictionary, on cable channels, websites, graffiti, and a thousand other places you’re not worried about.

    • 23.1
      Sharon says:

      The problem I see is that it is forcing that conversation with my child. I think that there should have been a warning in the program with the list of quilts and booths that there was a PG rated quilt that may not be appropriate for young children to see, viewer discretion is advised. But to attack someone’s character for making and displaying this controversial quilt is wrong. Although giving an opinion in a mature and nice way is a lot different than an attack. There will always be people ignorant people that don’t understand the difference, it’s best to ignore them since the moments we spend being upset about it are moments that we are not truly is a positive place. Negative and positive feelings can never live in the same moment at the same time…think about it (noticed I said moment, not minute).

  24. 24
    Michele says:

    I suppose we have to tolerate the haters of this artistic quilt, but I sure wish everyone would open their eyes just a little bit. Or stay in their vacuum.

  25. 25

    This is a magnificent reminder.

    I live in the “Bible belt”; raised Southern Baptist.
    I censor myself daily- not just in the language that I use and care to share, but even my thought processes suffer. I have been made to “hold my tongue” due to culture and community and it really starts to dilute my thoughts and feelings on such matters.
    I loved the quilt- and it was a gentle reminder to me that I don’t always have to censor myself.
    As a matter of fact- I can say what I fuckin’ want to say. Just like C. Just like you.


  26. 26
    Samantha says:

    These people need to relax. Anyone with a brain can see that it’s a light-hearted and playful quilt. It’s not like it says “Fuck you, yeah you right there, looking at this, your kids are ugly.” Sheesh! Of course some people aren’t going to like it, but to take personal offense and go on the attack is just wrong. I’m sure you knew you would get some kind of complaints, but this kind of backlash is simply bullying. Comfort yourself with the fact that you’re better than them.

  27. 27

    Wow…lots of different attitudes. I love it! I love the quilt. It looks beautiful…but I love typography. Oh, and I love the word fuck. It feels good to say it (and do it). I don’t understand what religion has to do with this quilt? (but I never claimed to be a rocket scientist…just an artist)
    I saw a quilt inspired by vaginas…it was gorgeous! I don’t think that one has anything to do with religion either. (??)
    bottom line…you either like the quilt or you don’t but it doesn’t have anything to do with religion.
    I did enjoy reading the comments filled with passion….lol
    Have a wonderful day filled with peace and happiness 🙂

  28. 28
    Cathy says:

    I love this quilt and would have no hesitation in making it for my children, I believe that there is considerable spiritual meaning behind the correct context in which the word f**k or f**k It is used,
    to quote,from John C. Parkin inspiring book “Fuck IT”
    “saying “F**k It” is the perfect Western expression of the Eastern spiritual concept of letting go, giving up, and finding real freedom by realizing that things don’t matter so much (if at all). It’s a spiritual way that doesn’t require chanting, meditating, or wearing sandals. And it’s the very power of this modern-day profanity that makes it perfect for shaking us Westerners out of the stress and anxiety that dominate our daily lives. So, find out how to say “F**k It “to all your problems and concerns. Say “F**k It “to all the “shoulds” in your life, and finally do what you want–no matter what other people think”

    I personally think that the fuck it concept is a truly wonderful way to teach ones children how to deal with life when things get unbearable just say f**k it and learn to let go then life becomes easy, and to all those who disagree with you well what can you say but f**k it and don’t allow yourself to be hurt by what narrow-minded people think. Happy Quilting

  29. 29
    Nell Timmer says:

    Thanks, Thomas. I enjoyed our talk at the 80’s party at Quilt Con and am enjoying these posts as well. My first job out of college at an art gallery in NYC coincided with the overwraught drama of Rudy Guiliani’s denigration of Chris Offili’s work at the Brooklyn Museum. This whole debate is bringing that all back to me. As people who are surrounded by creative types, who accept humanity as a whole with all its warts, etc. this kind of intolerance can be baffling. Kudos to the QuiltCon organizers for taking it on and many of the makers of the quilt for letting the words roll off their backs as they should. Hope we will get you and the fam down to DIA sometime soon! Maybe you can time it with a visit to the HVMQG! Cheers, Nell

    • 29.1
      thomas says:

      It was really nice talking with you as well. You know I would love to come down to HVMQG!!! And then go off to DIA. And don’t really get me started on the perception of art and the belief that it should somehow be easy, both to make and to see… Oi.

  30. 30
    Donna says:

    Thomas, having been married over 40 years to the same person, I think the quilt is very clear. For as long as quilts have existed, people have slept under them, stayed warm wrapped in them, and if they were fortunate shared sex covered by them: drowsy, romantic, silly, basic, whatever. A quilt this size would be large enough for a master bedroom bed, suitable for two bodies.
    I enjoy the piece being a group creation, a product of humanity rather than an individual, like a happy Greek chorus saying, “No Lysistrata, thank you kindly, not here.”
    I think the feel would be very different in a twin size version, more edgy. It could give the piece a generational feel.
    I like quilts that expand the triteness out of quilt making. It helps me think out of the box about my own projects. Thank you.

  31. 31
    Mary says:

    Next assignment: make another quilt that says the same thing. This time don’t use words.

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