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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