Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Quotable Quote - Mary Kay Ash

"There are two things people want more than
sex and money... recognition and praise."
Mary Kay Ash

Believe It or Not - Man Paralyzed by Falling Quilt

Strange, but true. The Shanghai Daily newspaper reported that a man living in Shenzhen in South China's Guangdong Province was "...knocked into a coma by a falling quilt...and is now suffering from hemiplegia from a neck injury..." on April 15 of this year.
Full story:

Monday, July 30, 2007

Fundraising Advice for Individuals - Alyson Pou

Alyson Pou is an installation and performance artist as well as the Program Services Director for Creative Capital Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization supporting individual artists. She has taught at several colleges and universities and has worked as an arts administrator for more than twenty years. The following is an interview with her that is included in Margaret Lazzari’s book, The Practical Handbook for the Emerging Artist, Second Edition (2002).
What are the most important things for artists to know when applying for grants?
Grants are only one piece of pie for artists. They are
just one part of a whole strategy that you come up
with for yourself.
Before you begin looking anywhere for funding, spend
time to find your own objective. Always stick to it.
That's the first step. Artists sometimes make the
mistake of wanting to mold themselves to what they
think the needs of the grantor are. But it's actually
just the reverse! You need to know your objective
The second step is doing research and identifying
resources that match your objective. Sometimes,
grants are the answers to that and sometimes they're
The third key step is follow-up. In some cases, you
may have to ask over and over again for funding.
One piece of advice I give artists is not to take
rejection personally. You cannot ever really know
what people's motivations are for supporting a
certain project. They have their own reasons. And
sometimes it's really not about you at all.
What should artists ask for?
Identify your objective. Then figure out what your
needs are and how to ask someone so that they can
give you a "yes." Or so that they can give you a "yes"
or "no" to let you move on to your next step. The
corporate world knows how to do this. But in a lot of
art-related conversations, artists talk about the
subject. Potential supporters might come to the table
wanting to help you, but they get confused because
they don't know what you're saying to them or what
you're asking.
So the delivery just isn't there.
Yes. Maybe because art sometimes seems to have
so little value in the eyes of the culture that we are
most apologetic.
Should artists look at both grants and other funding sources if they have a project they want to fund?
Yes. Not every successful artist is going to get a
grant. If you look at just our statistics, Creative
Capital received almost three thousand applications
this year, and we're maybe going to give fifty grants.
That's less than two percent. Artists need to look at
things like corporate giving programs and in-kind
donations as sources of funding, too.
Nevertheless, I say it's always worth it to write a
grant application if it fits your objectives.


Because it helps you hone your objectives and your
writing skills. I might complain about having to write
an application, but once I've done it, I am usually
several steps forward in my own thinking about my

While we're on the topic of writing about your work,
I think that every artist needs to learn to do this —
even if they feel it's hard and even if they can afford
to hire someone else! Grant panelists can immediately
recognize something that a second party has written,
or a grant writer who knows "grantese" has written,
or whether it's really coming from the heart of the
artist. So, I always emphasize to artists that it is to
their advantage to write about their work. It's not a
waste of time.

How can artists build on the grants they have received? You mentioned corporate giving programs and in-kind donations before.
People will often be interested in a project if they
see that someone else is already signed on and has
put the money on the line for it. If you receive a
grant, you can use that to approach other grant
agencies for more funding. If you don't need to
raise more money, you can still use that as
leverage for your career.
But I think that most artists don't focus enough
attention on donations of in-kind goods and services.
For example, if you're doing a big public art project
at the local school, you can ask the local scaffolding
company to donate the scaffolding you need. This is
where you can really get creative in your thinking as
an individual artist and also build a constituency
and audience for yourself. There are a lot of
businesses and individuals out there who would really
love to have contact with artists and what they're
I met an incredible husband and wife theatrical team,
whose productions were related to specific issues, like
women aging, and they were booked solid all year
round touring their pieces. They would target a
particular region or constituency as the audience of
this piece, and then they would methodically get in
touch with all the organizations that were associated
with that topic. It goes back to the objective. They set
their objective and found the resources for it—totally
outside of the art community. They reach their
audience so that they don't have this false removal
from the public.
Every commission, every residency, every
exhibition is based on relationships. Someone, a real
human being, wanted to help you. So, a lot of it
is about how you build relationships with people.
You've talked a lot about setting objectives. How do artists do that?
Artists need to do strategic planning. It makes a
huge difference, but it's not something that we're
ever trained to do. You can hire someone to help
you make a strategic plan.
What would be in it?
We all know the standard preparatory questions:
What do you want to accomplish in one year? Name
one or two goals in relationship to a project. What
do you want to accomplish in five years? These
questions begin the process of very specific time
management and financial planning.
We have been doing strategic planning with our
funded artists, and it's just unbelievable what it's
doing in their lives. It gets them out of the
negative realm ("I can't do this" or "Everything is
impossible") and into the realm of concrete
actionable steps—"I have a plan here." You can
continuously change and modify the plan, but you're
working with a structure.
I guess strategic planning could really change an artist's career.
You don't lose your creativity. You're gaining
perspective and gaining ways of getting help. It really
makes people get focused and bring all the parts of
their lives into the picture.
Some artists live by crisis management. Like, "OK,
I just got this commission to do this project. Now
I'm going to throw everything I have into it. I'll put
everything I have into it. I'll put whatever I need to
on my credit card; I'll stay up until three o'clock in
the morning, just to have this happen." You can
survive that way. But you can't project out a whole
life of that and see yourself moving from point A to
B to C with any control.
It also helps artists to recognize where they are,
too. In the United States, we live in a market
economy that is driven by the conventions of
capitalism. If you want to enter the gallery system,
then you have to acknowledge that it's based on
producing and selling products. It has its limitations
and advantages. Do they match your objectives?
Base your decision on that. But if you're the kind of
artist who has a strong social conscience or doesn't
want their works in the marketplace or wants total
control, then don't even enter the gallery system.
It's a waste of your time to say the system is a
mess, or the system abuses me, or I don't get what
I want out of the system. The system is just what it
is. You're either going to choose to function in it or
you're going to choose to be outside of it and do
something else.
And planning can also influence the course of a single project?
We funded one artist this year who had an
incredible, interesting, community based project.
She was gung-ho to finish it within four months.
But we could see that if she gave it a couple more
years to develop, she could have this project go on
to a much bigger scale than she ever considered!
By working with us on strategic planning, she
extended the project two or three more years, got
more contacts in the community to fundraise for it,
found a good producer, got the backing it deserved.
It was a great retraining, reeducation process for her.
What are some other Creative Capital programs?
We are really trying to think creatively about money.
One arm of the organization is the traditional grant-
giving arm. We accept and process proposals, a panel
reviews them, and we award money.
After this process, the funded artists work with the
Artist Services arm of the organization. They meet
with the Creative Capital staff to talk and strategize
about their project. Where are they with the project?
Do they need fundraising or PR assistance? How can
we help them find the help that they need? We have
an annual retreat for all funded artists, with
workshops on such topics as fundraising, strategic
planning, and legal issues for the artists. Additionally,
we invite arts professionals to act as consultants.
This helps to open doors of communication and
opportunity for our funded artists. After the initial
grant and meetings, artists can apply for
supplemental support, up to $5,000 for strategic
needs related to the project such as purchasing
equipment, hiring consultants, or developing
promotional materials. The positive effect of this
targeted money has been exponential.
And finally, funded artists can come back and
request up to $20,000 related to their project.
This time, the key word is impact. If you get this
money, what kind of impact will this money have,
not just on the project but on the community at large?
Your agency really provides some great opportunities and services!
Yes. We have very hands-on contact with our
artists. They have a lot of access to us as a resource.
NOTE: Unfortunately the deadline has passed for the 2007 grant cycle for which Visual Arts (including painting, sculpture, works on paper, installation, photo-based work, contemporary crafts, public art, and interdisciplinary projects) is a primary focus. The 2008 grant cycle will focus on Emerging Fields, Innovative Literature and Performing Arts. However, you can sign-up
to receive e-mail notification of future grant rounds
The primary web address for Creative Capital is:

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Glossary of Grants Lingo - by Bari Caton

This is an 8-page glossary that “…contains many of the terms encountered by individual artists involved in searching for grants and applying for external financial support. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list [emphasis added] of all terminology related to the area of grants, funding, and philanthropy, but rather a more focused list concentrating on the terms likely to be of greatest interest to artists seeking grant funding. Terms relevant to organizations seeking funding are deliberately omitted.”
To receive the glossary:
  1. Submit your first name and email address on the form at the URL listed below (the site owner swears on the life of his cat that your email information will never be sold or shared – I trusted him and so far, so good).
  2. You will receive an authentication email message almost immediately.
  3. Open your email message and click on the link included.
  4. Within a few minutes, you will receive another email message which has the glossary attached as a PDF file


Saturday, July 28, 2007

Just for Fun - Create Your Own Virtual Mudcloth

Discovering Mudcloth

In this online exhibit by the Smithsonian, you will step-by-step create your own virtual version of mud cloth (bogolanfini) and then print it out. You also will meet:
Nakunte Diarra, an expert in the technique of creating bogolanfini (mud cloth)
Chris Seydou who uses mud cloth to create contemporary fashions, and
Ismael Diabate who combines traditional mud cloth techniques with contemporary media to produce works of art.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Commissions - Private and Public Art

Artists often are unsure about what is involved with (and about how to handle) commission work – both those that are contracted with private clientele as well as those in the realm of public art. The following sites provide a wealth of information. Please note that although some of the articles are written for artists in other countries, most of the information they share is valid for artists anywhere.
General Information About Commissions:
Assure Positive Outcomes When Working on Commission – Alan Bamberger
Checklist for a CommissionPlease note that this is based on UK standards
Commissions and the Responsibilities they Bring, Part I – Henry Lydiate – Please note that this is based on UK standards
Commissions and the Responsibilities they Bring, Part II – Henry Lydiate –
Please note that this is based on UK standards
Making Art on Commission: Tips for Artists – Alan Bamberger
Private Commissions and the Law, Part 1 – Henry Lydiate – Please note that this is based on UK standards
Private Commissions and the Law, Part 2 – Henry Lydiate – Please note that this is based on UK standards
Sometimes Refusing a Commission is Best – Alan Bamberger
Public Art Commissions:
Textile Artist Joanie San Chirico shares information and pictures about her Library Public Art commission:
Suspended Atrium Sculpture Library Project
Information about this project posted to her blog

A New Renaissance: Contemporary Art Commissioning – Richard Brecknock – This is a 102 page handbook written in 1996 as a “…practical guide as a way of sharing some of the experience gained from working, both as a practicing artist and also in my role as a consulting artist to architects and urban designers. In effect providing a way forward by saving artists and commissioners from repeating many of the difficulties and problems I have personally encountered and also providing a clear step by step guide to processes which over the years I have found to be successful.” – NOTE: The handbook is written from the framework of Austratian public art commissions and artist/architect collaborations
Checklist for Artists Involved in Public Art CommissionsPublished by the Local Government Association of South Australia
What to Ask Before Applying for a Public Art Commission – an article in the June/July 2000 newsletter of New Mexico Arts – Regina Chavez Chapman
Public Art Commissions, Part 1 – Henry Lydiate – Please note that this is based on UK standards
Public Art Commissions, Part 2 – Henry Lydiate – Please note that this is based on UK standards
SAMPLE Agreements and Contracts for Private Commissions:
Artist/Client Agreement – an actual sample of a contract is not given, but a lot of extremely useful information is provided about what should be included in each section of the contract, and why.
Kay Bailey – This is her Sample Commission Agreement
Charlotte Warr Anderson provides a guideline for the pricing of her commissioned work
Commission Agreement – Cegur’s Chimera Gallery of the Arts – very detailed
Commission Contract – of an oil painter
Ellen Ann Eddy – This is a series of questions she poses to her clients as well as the information she gives to them about her design process and pricing.
Linda Witte Henke posts a series of questions which she explores with prospective clients who are considering a commission:

Mary Will Sussman – very detailed Art Quilt Commission Contract
Mary Will Sussman – very detailed Custom Made Wearable Art Contract

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Call for Papers - 2008 Symposium - Textile Society of America

Deadline: October 1, 2007
"Textiles as Cultural Expressions" is the theme for The Textile Society of America's (TSA) 11th Biennial Symposium. It convenes September 24 - 27, 2008 in Honolulu, Hawaii, providing "...an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide, from artistic, cultural, economic, historic, political, social, and technical perspectives."
"TSA encourages presentations on textiles from
all parts of the globe and from textile-related
disciplines including (but not limited to):
anthropology, archaeology, art, art history,
conservation, cultural geography, design,
marketing, mathematics, economics, history,
indigenous traditions, linguistics, theatre, and
the physical and social sciences. Scholars, artists,
gallery and museum professionals, educators,
and lovers of textiles
are encouraged to submit
proposals. [emphasis added]
Textiles serve as a means of communicating
cultural values, as a medium for social cohesion,
and they link science and technology, architecture
and design, music and the performing arts. We are
particularly interested in explorations of textiles
as story-telling media, as mythological objects, as
“woven” archetypes, and as evidence of a life lived,
showing the interconnectedness of culture(s)
and between generation(s). "
Call for Papers Prospectus:
Symposium Information:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Quotable Quote - Earl G. Graves

"We keep going back, stronger, not weaker, because we will not allow rejection to beat us down. It will only strengthen our resolve. To be successful there is no other way."
Earl G. Graves

"Putting Rejection in Perspective" - Barbara Macey

If you’re feeling defeated because quilt has been rejected from an exhibition I hope that these true stories will help you to feel more positive and less isolated.

Rejection can be a very touchy subject. It's always unsettling to be rejected but it's an inevitable part of being an art quiltmaker, something that everyone must come to terms with. I asked a number of well known Australian art quiltmakers about their negative experiences. All readily agreed to be mentioned by name in the original newsletter article. They could see that it was in a good cause, that it could help other people to understand that having their quilts rejected is not the end of the world. But most were not keen to have their names included in the website version of the article. For that reason I've given all but one of them nicknames. But I can assure you that every one of these well known art quilters has received many, many rejection letters.

If it's all so traumatic, why would anyone subject themselves to entering exhibitions with a selection process? No doubt the reasons are varied and complex. Far from being overwhelmed at the thought of having their work critically scrutinised, many people have a competitive spirit and relish the challenge. For some people, this kind of success represents another step forward in their quilting career, another proud entry in their CV. This is important for the quilter who wishes to exhibit in prestigious textile and craft exhibitions. (Exhibitions with no selection process are not generally considered to advance an art quilter's career, nor in certain circumstances should they appear on a CV).

Being selected for the right exhibitions can lead directly to awards, more invitations to exhibit, purchase of work for public or private collections, exposure overseas, teaching appointments or indirectly to grants, residencies and more. Being able to demonstrate a good track record as an artist can be crucial. But it is not for everyone; if the whole idea of putting your work and yourself to the test in this way turns you into a nervous wreck, it's not worth doing. There's nothing wrong with enjoying your quiltmaking without being competitive about it.

I know that many people will be surprised to learn that even the most successful quilters receive many rejection letters. I hope this knowledge will encourage less experienced quiltmakers to continue with their quiltmaking when rejected. Mary enters many exhibitions and has far more rejections than acceptances, perhaps three rejections for each acceptance. Her track record includes more than one success at Quilt National USA and selection for many other international and Australian exhibitions.

Vickie has won many awards but was frustrated when her wool quilt was not accepted for two exhibitions. It did not seem to fit either traditional or contemporary categories: she wonders if there is a need for another category.
Of course as quilters become more experienced and have a few successes behind them, they tend to enter more challenging quilt exhibitions as well as general textile and mixed craft exhibitions. It is important to remember that the higher one aims the greater the risk of being rejected. The prestigious Quilt National USA 1999 had over 1400 entries with only 89 being selected. It's a great honour to be accepted for an exhibition of this calibre, and certainly no disgrace to be rejected.

All successful quilters are persistent, but if there were a prize it would surely go to Glenys Mann of Tamworth, New South Wales. Glenys had twenty seven rejections in a row before taking stock of the situation. She realised that she hadn't been reading the entry forms properly and wasn't giving her entries enough thought. Most importantly she had the courage and insight to appraise her work honestly, saw that she needed to change her tactics and at once found success.

Quilts are sometimes rejected from one exhibition then accepted for another. It could be that they were first entered in an exhibition that wasn't appropriate for them. Perhaps it was due to individual differences between selectors. Or maybe it was a genuine mistake on the part of selectors with insufficient knowledge of art quilts. For whatever reason, it is plain that selectors can and do make mistakes. If you think your quilt has been mistakenly rejected, you must accept the decision as final and refrain from complaining to the exhibition organisers. It will achieve nothing, and could count against you in the future.

Jo says it took her a while to get used to rejection, but it's happened so many times she doesn't worry about it now. However, she was quite upset when a client took one of her quilts home on approval, nailed it to the wall, then decided not to buy it! After being repaired, it was later bought by an American TV executive. Hetty had a quilt acquired for the collection of a Russian museum after it was rejected from an Australian exhibition.

My own first rejection in 1973 had both positive and negative outcomes. I decided to enter my first exhibition not really understanding the implications. Turning up at the opening with a friend I felt extremely humiliated when my little patchwork panel was nowhere to be seen. I learned that the 'rejects' were hung at a different venue. My entry was with the rejects because the selection committee thought that it (not a photo mind you), was a piece of curtain material printed with an Op Art design!

Fortunately someone later noticed that it was in fact a novel piece of patchwork and I was immediately invited to conduct workshops and to hold a solo exhibition which was very successful. The same people who had rejected my work were later instrumental in encouraging me to enter craft exhibitions that opened new doors.

A short time later I entered an 'avant garde' quilt in a local textiles exhibition that was supposedly 'cutting edge'. It was rejected, though a rather traditional quilt was accepted. In this case I was able to be more philosophical, concluding – correctly as later events proved - that my quilt was before its time! These were the first in a long list of rejections I've had over the years. Fortunately there have been many acceptances too.
I think that I was upset at the first rejection because it was so public and because there was no prior notification. Since then I have helped to organise many exhibitions and this experience has made me very much aware of the need to keep the whole process confidential and to promptly inform all entrants of their success or otherwise.

For a number of very successful people I spoke with, the answer was ‘yes’. They believed that in some instances they had not succeeded in making a first class quilt and were occasionally relieved that their work was rejected. Some thought that fast approaching deadlines had distracted them. Others believed that experimental work had not really succeeded. Experimentation and innovation are mainstays of art quiltmaking but since all experimentation is a risk it is crucial to be able to honestly assess the success of your own efforts. Just being original certainly isn't enough.

If you can foster the ability to stand back and be detached about your quilt you are less likely to make bad decisions about how successful it is. It also helps to begin well before the deadline to give yourself time to start again if necessary. It takes practice and a resolve to avoid self deception. It's not easy because flaws in the design of a quilt are not always self evident in the same way as they are in something purely practical like a jug that doesn't pour properly!

I'm really embarrassed about a few of my own quilts that have been selected and in my opinion shouldn't have been. To make matters worse, photos of some of them have been included in exhibition catalogues. Looking at them now, I think that they are not really bad quilts, but they're not good either! Only good quilts enhance your reputation. In the long run the selectors are doing you a favour by rejecting your less successful quilts, though you may not realise this until later!

Some people experience a kind of rejection whilst apparently being accepted. Trudie entered a quilt in an exhibition. It was well known that though there was no formal selection, the least favoured items were hung as far as possible from the entrance door of the exhibition space. Trudie was mortified to find that her quilt was hung a great distance from the door, and even worse, it was hung out of sight on the back of a cabinet! This was a case of the wrong kind of exhibition for a wonderfully adventurous quilt.

Agatha had just returned from a trip to Japan when I spoke with her. She was disappointed that though her quilt had been accepted for exhibition, it was returned without being hung, along with the quilts of several other Australians who had also been told that they had been accepted.

Edna had two quilts selected for a national mixed craft exhibition in a distant city. By chance she discovered that they were not hung and though she made inquiries, no explanation was ever given. The makers of other quilts selected for the same exhibition – also not hung - were told that there was not enough space available. Incidents like this should never happen.

  • Stay positive and confident. Realise that receiving
    rejections is the norm for everyone. Don't let it stop
    you from entering another exhibition. Like Glenys Mann,
    you can resolve to make it a learning experience by
    honestly assessing what went wrong.
  • Take the initiative, work at resolving problem areas.
  • Is there a possibility that you're entering the wrong kind of exhibition?
  • Are you hazy about what's original and what's not?
  • Does your design or technique need improving?
  • It's important to develop a coherent body of work,
    to make your own exciting journey as a quiltmaker.
    Are you doing this or just responding to exhibition
    opportunities as they come up?
Educate yourself - it can be fun!
  • Is your photography letting you down? Try
    taking a course or refer to one of the many
    excellent books now available.
  • Consider a mentor. You could approach an
    established quilt artist with a view to arranging
    a kind of apprenticeship in exchange for acting
    as her assistant part time for a while. (If you will
    be working in someone else's studio, find out first
    how you stand legally. For example, will you be
    covered by insurance in case of injury or other
    adverse circumstances?)
  • If there are other art quilters in your area, maybe
    you could get together and form a group for mutual
    support. Many people have done this successfully.
  • Is there a critique group nearby? If so, give it a try,
    if not consider forming one yourself. The benefits
    are truly worthwhile and having your work assessed
    by an expert in front of a group isn't nearly as scary
    as you'd imagine.
  • Broaden your view and hone your skills by taking
    master classes with appropriate tutors.
  • Consider taking a tertiary arts/textiles course.
    Some institutions now make it possible to study no
    matter where you live.
  • Read widely and attend art quilt exhibitions as well
    as other high profile art and craft exhibitions. Absorb
    information from websites, magazines, books and
    exhibition catalogues local and international. Don't
    forget historical quilts, there is much to be learned
    from them.
  • Do all this and you will begin to get a feel for what's
    going on in the contemporary art world and where
    you and your work fit in.

Be well organised
This all sounds obvious but it's surprising how many people fall by the wayside because they neglect the basics.

  • Read the entry form before starting to make
    your quilt, note the rules and stick to them.
  • Answer every question and keep your statement
    to the prescribed length.
  • Work out a timetable that allows plenty of time
    for designing and making the quilt plus plenty of
    time for photography and any necessary processing.
    Then allow extra time in case something goes wrong!
  • Learn to take good photos or find a professional
    photographer, preferably one who has a good reputation
    for photographing quilts.
  • Avoid being disqualified due to your entry arriving
    too late. Make sure you send it off in time to reach
    the organiser well before the deadline.
  • Don’t ever ask for any favours or expect the exhibition
    organiser to change the rules for you. That would be
    unethical because it’s not fair to those who have taken
    the trouble to abide by them.
  • Take the initiative, be honest with yourself, and learn
    to be your own most ruthless critic. In the end, only
    you are responsible for what you achieve.

Though disgruntled rejectees often suspect some kind of favouritism or unfairness, I believe that this is quite exceptional. After all, selectors value their reputations too, and most take pride in doing a good job.

Certainly the ones I spoke with approach their task very seriously. Selectors are aware that it is unfair and inappropriate to bring biased views to the selection process and they make an immense effort to be even handed. In a small place like Australia, it's inevitable that selectors will know some of the quiltmakers whose work they are assessing. It's unavoidable but need not be a major problem. Selectors are conscious that the situation calls for great care and speak of bending over backwards to avoid favouring someone whose work they recognise. But often it’s not recognised; I've been surprised on more than one occasion to learn that I've rejected the work of well known and successful quiltmakers who are personal friends, a painful experience for all, but you can't get more unbiased than that! My own work has also occasionally been rejected by a friend.

Most organisers attempt to minimise the risk of bias by employing a panel of selectors of varied background, usually three in number to avoid a stalemate. Those who are not quiltmakers usually have appropriate specialised knowledge of some aspect of the art world, though they may not know much about quilts. To provide a balance and remedy this deficiency it is usual to include a quiltmaker. If the exhibition is held regularly, there will be a different panel each time. Thus entrants who are rejected by one panel may well be accepted by another. There are variations on this arrangement. Some institutions have a single selector, different on each occasion. Others, perhaps with a particular policy in mind, use their own staff on all occasions.

In fact, we all have biases that we are not aware of. It would be naive to imagine that bias can be totally eliminated, but it can certainly be reduced. In the end, selectors are only human and exhibition entrants need to be realistic about what can be expected of them. The vast majority do approach their difficult task with the utmost care.

Sometimes the identity of selectors is publicised beforehand, sometimes it is not. There are people who decide whether or not to enter an exhibition on the basis of who is on the selection panel. I don't know how effective this strategy is, but I suspect that it's doesn't always enhance the entrant's chances of success.

I hope that these true stories of rejection will help you to feel less isolated and encourage you to keep making quilts, and to keep entering exhibitions. It's quite evident that receiving a rejection letter doesn't mean that a quiltmaker is a failure. Rather, it's a reminder that persistence counts as much as ability and that is very encouraging.

Barbara Macey © 2001

This article is part of a series giving a behind-the-scenes account of exhibitions from the point of view of the exhibitor and of the organiser.

It was first published in Ozquilt Network Newsletter (#40, June 2001), the newsletter of Ozquilt Network Inc, Australia’s organisation for art quilters. The article also appears in the newsletter archive on their website, http://www.ozquiltnetwork.org.au/
Email: admin@ozquiltnetwork.org.au

Barbara Macey is the Ozquilt Network, Inc. Newsletter Editor,
Website Coordinator and Running Stitch Coordinator

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Professional Guidelines for Artists

The Society of North American Goldsmiths is developing a series of guidelines for artists. These guidelines cover a wide variety of topics and address situations common to all art professionals. They include:
Top Ten Tips for Getting into a.....Juried Exhibition, Craft Show, Book or Magazine - 19 pages
"This Professional Guidelines document provides
information that can improve an artist’s or
craftsperson’s chances of being accepted into
exhibitions, craft shows, books and magazines—
anywhere that inclusion is decided by a jury. "
Inventory Records: Documentation and Provenance of Your Work - 10 pages
"It is critically important to keep accurate and
complete records of your work, regardless of
whether that work is production, limited edition,
commission, or one-of-a-kind work. The value of
this information cannot be overstated. The artist’s
INVENTORY RECORD serves as documentation for
the future, establishing the provenance (origins,
exhibition and publishing history) of a particular
piece. This is especially important in the case of
one-of-a kind work which is the work most likely
to be acquired by museums in the future."
Inventory Records Form: Documentation and Provenance
Artist Checklist: Exhibitions - 5 pages
"When artwork is exhibited, what are the
responsibilities of the exhibitor? What
are the responsibilities of the artist? What
is fixed and what is negotiable? An artist
should know the answers to certain questions
regarding an exhibition before agreeing to
Artist Checklist: Claims for Damaged Work - 4 pages
"Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts,
artworks are occasionally damaged or destroyed
during shipping or an exhibition. Artists are then
confronted with the process of making an insurance
claim. Who processes the claim depends on who
bought the insurance and when the damage occurred."
Discounts - 7 pages

"In our society, price establishes worth and value.
For better or worse, the common denominator in
the marketplace is the dollar, and worth is
measured by what people will pay. It is the job of
both the artist and the gallery to establish the
value of the artist’s work (by virtue of its uniqueness,
craftsmanship, reputation and quality), and remind
people that this worth is reflected in its price. The
price confirms this value. If the selling price is negotiable,
then the discounted price will be the true value, not
the retail price. As a result, it’s in every artist’s interest
to maintain close control over the selling prices of
his or her work."
Fundraising Auctions: Issues & Checklists for Artists - 12 pages
"This Professional Guidelines topic is intended to more fully
inform artists about the impact of fundraising auctions on
their work and careers, what questions need to be asked prior
to and after donating work, and to recommend how artists
can maximize the benefits when participating in auctions.
Ultimately, we believe, the behavior of the artists can and
should change the way fundraising auctions are conceived
and conducted. "
Open Studios: Artist Checklist - 12 pages
"An Open Studio event brings the artist and the public
together, it is an opportunity to exposea broad portion
of the community to what it is we do and make. We can
educate them on how and why we build what we do. We
can answer technical questions and address issues
of price and materials. We can even dispel a few myths
and misconceptions. And, of course, we can open the
door to new markets...The following checklist will
help you decide if taking part in such an event would be
personally advantageous and then to help guide you
through the process. These guidelines should be
considered and tailored to the specific needs and
situations of each individual artist or craftsman."

Making Meaning - The Art of Virginia Harris - Post # 5

49 X 54.5 inches. Hand dyed and commercial fabrics, beads, twine and findings. Original design. 2001
Artist Statement
After September 11, 2001 hate speech ruled the airways and conversations. I wondered why the questions that I had were not being asked. So to answer my own questions I decided to find images of hate symbols to mount on the “jail of hate.” Words printed across the top are synonyms for “other” and fear.
The triangles on striped background were the various Nazi designations for inmates in concentration camps during World War II.
Row 1: Black for asocial, mental cases, lesbians; Britain; Shackles for slavery/incarceration; K is the 11th letter of the alphabet and there are three in KKK; Judaism; Purple for Jehovah Witnesses.
Row 2: Communism; Green for “professional criminal”; Iran; Christianity; Red for “political prisoner”; Confederacy.
Row 3: North Korea; Klan badge designates the “purity” of white blood; Biohazard (quote from William Trent’s diary dated May 24, 1763.); Yellow for Jews; Islam; silhouette of Stealth bomber.
Row 4: Cruise missile; USA; Gavel for justice with quote from G. W. Bush (“WE know he’s guilty”); Lynching; 9/11.
Row 5: Blue for immigrants; Nazi; Pink for homosexuals; General Custer’s personal Guidon; Syria.
Row 6: Iraq; Executive Order 9066 authorizing “internment” of the Japanese during WW II; Little Boy – the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima; Brown for Roma (Gypsies).
Printed on the bottom are the words from Rogers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” sung by Lt. Cable in South Pacific. I changed them as follows:
We’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
We’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed into our dear little ear –
We’ve got to be carefully taught!
We’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade –
We’ve got to be carefully taught!
We’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before we are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people our relatives hate –
We’ve got to be carefully taught!

A DVD documentary of Virginia's work along with video of her commentary is available for $20.00 + S&H. It contains three sections: biographical, political (with artist commentary about each piece), and a retrospective set to music.
To obtain a copy, email her at:

Making Meaning - The Art of Virginia Harris - Post # 4

3O.5 inches X 35 inches. Commercial cotton and synthetic fabrics, leather. Computer printed on commercial and treated fabrics. Machine pieced and quilting. Original design 2004
Artist Statement
Conflict of interest is the watchword in Washington these days. With the war in Iraq offering a windfall to many corporations, the feeding at the government trough has reached epidemic proportions. The Congress and Whitehouse are already in the trough. Globalization will soon have the world gobbled up by these same corporations. Many of the corporations have unfamiliar names, are law firms that protect corporations, lobby congress and are the conduit for a lot of money that gets to the politicians as they get a lot of money for their clients.
In the meantime, death, war, poverty, destruction, terrorism, and environmental degradation happens all around.
A DVD documentary of Virginia's work along with video of her commentary is available for $20.00 + S&H. It contains three sections: biographical, political (with artist commentary about each piece), and a retrospective set to music.
To obtain a copy, email her at: vhquilts@sonic.net

Making Meaning - The Art of Virginia Harris - Post # 3

41.5 inches X 28.5 inches. Cotton, plastic, Photoshop printed fabric. Machine pieced and quilted. Adapted from a photograph. 2004

Artist Statement

The phrase sounds good. Would that the intent was as good. As learning and education are put on the back burner while test scores have been made the primary concern of school administrations. Low test scores equal less money. In the meantime, money is being diverted from schools to other pursuits. The result is schools are closed due to lack of funds. No child left behind takes on a totally new meaning.
A DVD documentary of Virginia's work along with video of her commentary is available for $20.00 + S&H. It contains three sections: biographical, political (with artist commentary about each piece), and a retrospective set to music.
To obtain a copy, email her at: vhquilts@sonic.net

Making Meaning - The Art of Virginia Harris - Post # 2

Coup d’Etat
30 inches X 46 inches. Photoshop manipulated photos printed on fabric. Machine pieced and quilted. Original design. 2004
Artist Statement
On November 7, 2000 of the approximate 156,421,311 registered voters 105,405,100 people voted. Of those votes Al Gore got 50,456,002 and George W. Bush got 50,999,897, meaning Gore won the popular vote.
On December 12, 2000 The Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to stop the recount of under counted votes in Florida. The basis of the decision to stop the recount was the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. It was found that George W. Bush would suffer “irreparable harm” if the count continued. The justices stated that their ruling to stop the recount was intended to preserve the “fundamental right to vote.” Isn’t it ironic that by not counting all the votes, the right to vote was protected? The irony continues when this decision was to only apply to the 2000 election. It is the first time the Supreme Court has rendered a decision that was not supposed to become the law of the land.
In the final analysis, five people selected a president in a supposed democracy. By doing so every vote cast in 2000 and this so-called democracy were totally negated.
A DVD documentary of Virginia's work along with video of her commentary is available for $20.00 + S&H. It contains three sections: biographical, political (with artist commentary about each piece), and a retrospective set to music.
To obtain a copy, email her at: vhquilts@sonic.net

Making Meaning - The Art of Virginia Harris - Post # 1

32.75 inches X 39.25 inches. Adobe Photoshop manipulated images printed on special fabric treated for Inkjet printers. Machine pieced and quilted. Original design. 2004
Artist Statement

Here are one hundred forty four people who are in the movers and shakers of the present administration and its policies along with those who are supported by them. I drew the line at 144 even though I could have added that many more.
A DVD documentary of Virginia's work along with video of her commentary is available for $20.00 + S&H. It contains three sections: biographical, political (with artist commentary about each piece), and a retrospective set to music.
To obtain a copy, email her at: vhquilts@sonic.net

Quotable Quote - Jacob Getlar Smith

"The artist should be a seeing-eye dog
for a myopic civilization."
Jacob Getlar Smith

Monday, July 23, 2007

Making Meaning (Continued) - Eric Maisel

This post is third in a series of three articles for artists on "Making Meaning" or "Working Deeply" by writer and creativity coach, Eric Maisel. The series was originally published in his Creativity Newsletter. This one was published August 1, 2006 in Creativity Newsletter # 165
In this month’s newsletter I wanted to continue our intermittent discussion of the idea of “meaning-making” and the implications of living a life based on the idea of passionately making meaning. I would love your feedback on this month’s piece and I would be pleased to share some of your thoughts in next month’s newsletter.
Donning the Mantle of Meaning-Maker
“What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” -- Victor Frankl
It isn’t at all easy to say, “I am a meaning-maker.” First, it sounds a little pompous and arrogant. Who am I to make meaning? How self-important that sounds! Second, it flies in the face of tradition. Most traditions ask you to blend in, serve, and bow to the common will. Third, it isn’t that clear what the phrase means or what you might be agreeing to. For these and other reasons, at least ten of them and each significant, you stop on the threshold of announcing that you are a meaning-maker and take an involuntary step backward. The mantle of meaning-maker is there for you to don but you refuse, consciously or unconsciously objecting.
Let me try to meet your objections one by one. First, here are the ten main objections as a list.
Then we’ll examine each one in turn.
• Meaning-making is an arrogant idea
• Meaning-making flies in the face of tradition
• Meaning-making is an obscure phrase
• Meaning-making demands too much personal responsibility
• Meaning-making is too much work
• Meaning-making involves too much choosing
• Meaning-making increases core anxiety
• Meaning-making is an invitation to make big mistakes
• Meaning-making guarantees that meaning will never be settled
• Meaning-making is as artificial and subjective an idea as any other idea about meaning
1. Meaning-making is an arrogant idea
A first objection is that donning the mantle of meaning-maker is somehow an arrogant, pompous, self-important thing to do. At the heart of this objection is a misunderstanding of the difference between standing up for your own cherished beliefs and principles, which you know is not an arrogant thing to do, and acting like you are better than other people, a position you are right to condemn. “I am living by my principles” is not the same thing as “I am better than you are.” Does it feel arrogant to say, “I am living by my principles?” I think it feels exactly the opposite: I think it feels grounded, humble, sincere, and honorable.
Still, it may feel arrogant. We have so many injunctions against saying “This is what I believe and I wish you wouldn’t try to bully me with your beliefs” that, instead of speaking and acting bravely and sincerely from a place of personal conviction, we retreat to a familiar place of common agreement. Becoming accustomed to that place and feeling safe in that place, taking even a small step into the territory of personal belief feels arrogant and scary. We laugh with the other sophisticated parents about our children’s drinking—only after three of them are killed in a car accident do we say what we believed all along that there was too much drinking going on.
Yesterday it felt too difficult to say what we knew to be true and today it is easy to say it—but it took a tragedy to unseal our lips. It is not arrogant to speak your truth. It is, however, difficult, and for many reasons. It is difficult, first of all, because it must actually be your truth and not some piety or opinion you are mouthing because it serves you, masks some hatred, avoids responsibility, or in some way pays lip service to principles or ideals while actually only protecting your ego and your self-interest. That is arrogant, to speak as if you were being truthful and feign righteous indignation when in fact you have gone to no deeper, more honorable place than self-interest. Making your own meaning is very different from that, and not arrogant but heroic.
2. Meaning-making flies in the face of tradition
A second objection is that to don the mantle of meaning-maker is to break with tradition. Most traditions do indeed point a finger at anyone who announces that he knows what he knows and believes what he believes and you must indeed break with that part of a tradition. Even in a tradition like Zen Buddhism, where a central tenet is that no one should claim more knowledge than anyone else, the very hierarchy that produces Zen Masters supports the unspoken core principle of every institution, that some people are on top and that everyone else should defer to them. So you will need to choose what part of your tradition you can accept—if any.
We do not like to fly in the face of tradition—the very phrase makes us a little squeamish. Tradition is what we know and it may feel like the glue holding a fragile world together. We say to ourselves, “Yes, it is just a tradition, but no doubt it serves some purpose, so although I don’t really believe in it, I can live with it and, more than that, I need it.” Since donning the mantle of meaning-maker involves choosing where to invest meaning and where to divest meaning, a position that would force you to look at your group’s traditions with a new, more critical eye, and since the possibility of losing those traditions makes you sad, scared, and squeamish, you back off from donning that mantle.
However the smarter, braver part of you knows that a tradition is only of value if it is of value. It may be your group’s tradition to abort girl fetuses, burn witches at the stake, or damn everyone but members of your group to hell. Even the more innocent-seeming family, community, or religious traditions may exist solely as a function of the ability of some authority (like a father, a President, or a God) to make demands. As an honest person, you know how unrighteous that seems as a reason to honor a tradition. Part of you feels that there is something deeply right about tradition and part of you knows that a given tradition ought to be honored only if it ought to be honored. Be brave and look at your tradition with open eyes. If you must reject it, because you no longer can accept its central tenets, bravely do exactly that. If you wish to retain it, look for the existential thread in your tradition that supports personal meaning-making.
3. Meaning-making is an obscure phrase
It is easy to throw up your hands and cry, “I don’t get the idea of meaning-making. How can you make meaning? Either there is meaning or there isn’t. You can’t just make meaning like you can make a car or a violin. No, I don’t get it—so I think I’ll pass!” This objection is at once reasonable and fully disingenuous. It is disingenuous because each of us follows a path of complete mystery already, buying concepts like Holy Spirit, karma, or nirvana without blinking and, more tellingly, knowing in our bones what the phrase “making meaning” signifies. We know perfectly well that it is comprised of ideas like personal responsibility, courage, engagement, and authenticity.
However, part of the objection is not at all disingenuous. It is the part where we cry out in pain. What we are objecting to is not the obscurity of the phrase but the nature of the universe the phrase posits. We object to a universe where meaning has to be made. We object to a universe that is meaningless until we force it to mean. We object to nature pulling this dirty trick and making us a partner to it, giving us exactly two choices, to not look this reality square in the eye and live as a coward, or to see what is required and live as an absurd hero. It is not the obscurity of the phrase “making meaning” that disturbs us but what it says about life.
It is hard to meet the objection that we would like life to be other than it is. The way we meet it is with a certain maturity of being, by asking ourselves to face this central reality, that meaning must be made, and all the peripheral realities, that meaning can be lost in the blink of an eye, that meanings change, and all the rest. We understand what this maturity of being feels like and we understand that it is available to us. All we need to do is stand up and embrace it.
4. Meaning-making demands too much personal responsibility
How can you smoke two packs a day and claim to be making meaning? How can you kick your dog as a stand-in for your boss and claim to be making meaning? How can you watch television four hours every night when your pet project remains untouched and claim to be making meaning? You can’t—and you know it. As long as you prefer not to take personal responsibility for your life, you will sprint rather than stroll away from the idea of making meaning.
To protect all the places where we want to abdicate personal responsibility, we create a worldview where personal responsibility is minimized. We cast blame, announce that everything happens for a reason, invoke fate, consult our chart, submit to God’s will. In a host of ways we protect our desire not to take personal responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is natural—but it does not make us proud. We would love to take that responsibility and make ourselves proud, but we know ourselves too well and doubt that we are equal to the task. We have drifted off too many diets, left too many books unwritten, squandered too many hours, and failed to rise to the occasion more times than we care to remember. Fine. You can leave it at that, remain disappointed in your efforts, and throw in the towel, or you can take a deep breath, locate that place inside of yourself that relishes effort and that takes pride and joy in trying, and cast aside this objection. You can say, “I accept responsibility”—because that is exactly what you’ve always intended.
5. Meaning-making is too much work
You want to kick back—you don’t want to make meaning. You want to get the items on your to-do list checked off and be done with work—you don’t want to make meaning after work. You want the company picnic, the Saturday movie, the visit with friends, the things that you do to be just what they are without adding on the taxing matter of whether they are meaningful or not. You don’t want everything you do to come with this added task, of judging its meaningfulness. You don’t want every passing second to come with this added demand, that you invest it with some meaning. Yikes! It makes a person exhausted just thinking about it.
Fair enough—if you think that ease has value. But no existential person really does, nor do most of the world’s traditions. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, you aren’t offered six Sabbaths and one day of work. It is a tenet of the authentic person to work at the project of life, as that work is life, it is the very way we justify ourselves, create ourselves, and make ourselves proud. It is our obligation and the way we express our love of life. As Ernest Becker put it, “When we understand that man is the only animal who must create meaning, who must open a wedge into neutral nature, we understand the essence of love.”
We accept that meaning-making is work, but it is the loving work of self-creation. It isn’t slave labor or a life sentence but rather the choice we make about how we intend to live our life. Even if it were slave labor and a life sentence, we might still be able to smile and accept our lot. That is the message in Albert Camus’s famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which the narrator discovers that he can retain his freedom of attitude even though he is sentenced to an eternity of pushing boulders up a mountain. But, for us, it isn’t slave labor: it is only and exactly the loving work we choose to do to make our life as meaningful as we can possibly make it.
6. Meaning-making involves too much choosing
It is a simple truth, though not very well understood, that choosing provokes anxiety. It can—and often does—make us anxious choosing which new car to buy, whether to accept or reject a new suitor, even whether to go for the cereal that tastes good or the cereal that is good for us. To hurry along all of this choosing, so as to get past the feelings of anxiety that attend to each choice, we make snap decisions (and often call that “using our intuition”). Many of our actions in life occur simply because we will do almost anything not to think too hard about the choices in the front of us.
Given this ubiquitous dynamic, of avoiding choices at all costs, it is natural that we will not want to make meaning, which amounts to making one choice after another until the end of time. If it is hard enough choosing which cereal to buy, how much harder it will be choosing where to invest your meaning minute after minute and day after day! Better to stay with a simple routine, keep your head down and your clothes clean, move another day closer to retirement, and not think too much about meaning. Better anything than a mountain of choosing!
This is entirely understandable. But it isn’t authentic. Freedom equals choosing: there is no intellectual freedom, no personal freedom, no human freedom without a commitment to lifelong choosing. When a value that means something to you is involved, you must make a choice—or fail yourself by not choosing. When work that means something to you is at stake, you must choose to do it—or fail yourself by not choosing to do it. Yes, you can orchestrate a way of being that minimizes choosing, rather than frankly and forthrightly considering the countless meaning choices that confront you. That would be far easier—only dishonest.
7. Meaning-making increases core anxiety
Isn’t our goal to reduce our experience of anxiety, not increase it? If dark tunnels make us anxious, are we really obliged to explore them? Can’t we just avoid them? How you answer this question determines how you will live your life. If you decide that reducing your experience of anxiety is one of your paramount goals and that avoiding experiences that might provoke anxiety is obviously the wise course, then you might as well sit yourself down in front of the bonbons, the pulpit, or the television set right now and wave meaning-making goodbye.
Our goal is not to reduce our experience of anxiety: our goal is to live authentically. In order to live authentically, we must consciously and completely embrace anxiety. We must invite anxiety. Our system says that this is irrational but our heart knows that it is exactly right. If we intend to make meaning by writing a great novel, we can’t also hope to flee from the experience of anxiety. If we intend to hunt down a life-saving herb in a mosquito-infested jungle, we can’t also hope to flee from the experience of anxiety. If we intend to stand up for a principle that our whole town rejects, we can’t also hope to flee from the experience of anxiety. In order to accomplish these meaning-making tasks, we are obliged to say, “Okay, anxiety. Bring it on!”
We tend to lose our taste for roller coasters the older we get. At fourteen we can’t wait to get on the Wild Monkey or the Ultimate Plunge. At forty, we can wait. Likewise, our taste for anxiety does not increase. We mind our grandchildren with an even more watchful eye than we minded our children, we move our money to safer investments, we take fewer risks and invite fewer heart palpitations. This is the natural way. And still, in order to live authentically, we must risk anxiety, brave anxiety, embrace anxiety, and invite anxiety every single day. For a meaning-maker, as much as he might wish for one, there is no retirement from anxiety.
8. Meaning-making is an invitation to make big mistakes
What is so soothing about seeking meaning, as opposed to making meaning, is that you can’t make a mistake—by definition. You can go off to India for a year, study with a yogi who turns out to be a fraud, get dysentery, and come home poorer and no wiser, and still you get to call your year excellent, because, although you didn’t find any answers, you were a good, honorable seeker. Nothing is a mistake to a seeker—not banding with bigots, not turning your child over to a guru, not chanting things you do not believe—because every such sin gets washed away in the warm water of innocence in which the seeker fancies himself bathing. A meaning-maker is not so self-servingly innocent. He knows that the thing he is about to embark on may prove a mistake: he owns up to that possibility. He recognizes that he does not need to locate principles and values, that he has them already, and that if he violates them he is making a mistake by his own lights. He doesn’t get to say “I didn’t know,” “I didn’t understand,” and “I was just following.” He knows better than that and is more truthful than that.
It is not only all right to invite in the possibility of making mistakes, it is the honorable thing to do. Fearing mistakes is a sure road to smallness. To not make a large meaning investment in fighting some injustice because you fear that your time may be wasted, that others may fail you, that others may turn on you, or that it may prove some other sort of “mistake,” is to end up not fighting that injustice and not making meaning. You avoided the “mistake”—but at what cost? Better to accept that life comes with countless missteps, wrong turns, and dead ends. Our desire to don the mantle of meaning-maker should not be extinguished because we fear pratfalls.
9. Meaning-making guarantees that meaning will never be settled
When we think about the sort of task that meaning-making is, we conclude—rightly—that our meanings are bound to change as we decide to invest meaning here, remove meaning there, and carefully monitor our meaning investments. How unsettling to be for a war one day and against it the next, as our subjective sense of the war’s meaning changes, or against it one day and for it the next. We know in our bones that these are among the worst sorts of feelings, having our sense of the world turned completely upside down overnight.
We do not want this—which is why people adopt overarching positions, like always being for their country’s war or always being against their country’s war, so that they can avoid having their meaning equilibrium disturbed. If you fear that meaning will never be settled if you agree to don the mantle of meaning-maker, you are exactly right. You will have opened yourself up to some of the worst feelings imaginable, including feelings of foolishness and despair. But what you lose in safety, you gain in righteousness.
You can live a settled life, existentially speaking, but only at the cost of your authenticity and integrity. It is really much better, albeit more dangerous, to accept that meaning will never be settled, that meaning is always at risk, that meaning is a problem and a challenge and not a foregone conclusion. Agreeing to this is like agreeing to live in a place like Los Angeles or San Francisco, where small earthquakes occur regularly and the big one is a real threat. It is to agree to earthquakes. There is no reason why you should do this with a smile and no reason why you feel sanguine about surviving all this tumult. It is simply the right course, as to settle meaning for all time is to kill the self.
10. Meaning-making is as artificial and subjective an idea as any other idea about meaning
It is quite correct to argue that meaning-making is just an idea and no more valid, true, verifiable, or interesting than other ways of construing life. Maybe there are seventy-five gods, all squabbling, and our best bet is to try to appease them. Maybe greed, ambition, and satisfaction are the answers and the goals of life are to make millions and to sleep with lots of sexy partners. There is no lack of constructions: in fact, there are billions, one for each person. That is exactly the point.
The philosophical tradition known alternately as structuralism and postmodernism has explored this territory with great energy and perversely difficult language. In one of its less obscure passages, the French structuralist Jean Baudrillard opined, “Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us.” This is Baudrillard’s way of saying that, since the contemporary person has “seen through” the idea of absolute meaning, he is left with billions of meanings, all equally fragile, all equally subjective, all equally fugitive. That is true.
To say that meaning-making is artificial and subjective is only to say that whatever you choose to believe has the built-in flaw of not being “the absolute truth.” You can’t get around this problem, except by asserting that there is absolute truth. Therefore it is no greater risk to nominate yourself as the sole arbiter of meaning than to take any other position with respect to meaning. That meaning-making is an arbitrary way of naming your life’s path amounts to no objection at all and is entirely met in the following way: “Yes, that’s right.”
Throughout human history a majority of people have believed in some sort of divine presence. Many people today still ardently believe in a concept of the divine. Even if you do not want to abandon your religious or spiritual beliefs, there is still ample reason for you to decide to create your own meaning. Teachers in each of great traditions have argued that personal meaning-making in fact demonstrates a believer’s genuine, heartfelt desire to be involved in the world and to take God and life’s mysteries seriously. As the presence of God is a matter of faith and faith provides a background coloration but nothing as simple as a blueprint to follow, you must take it upon yourself to make the meaning in your life.In the Catholic tradition, for instance, Saint Augustine asks believers to don the mantle of meaning-maker in the following passage: Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.
St. Augustine demands that you actively participate in your life as a dedicated meaning-maker. Not only must you do the work of life and not shirk doing that work, you must figure out what that work is. Even if God has a plan for you, you are not privy to that plan, and so you must operate for all intents and purposes as if you are constructing the plan of your life, in the hope that God’s hand is guiding your personal meaning-making. If you wait for whispers and signs, you may be getting that whisper and that sign from below and not from above. Better to think through where you want to be good, productive, and righteous and invest your meaning there, trusting that God has placed his hand on your shoulder as you made your own choices.
In the Islamic tradition, it is written in the Koran: “God does not compel a soul To do what is beyond its capacity: It gets what it has earned, And is responsible for what it deserves.”
This excerpt from the Koran is relevant to our discussion because it reiterates in no uncertain terms that a believer must take responsibility for his actions. You cannot use a divine presence as an excuse or a scapegoat: you earn your righteousness and must think through, and then take responsibility for, your meaning choices. It also addresses the objection that meaning-making is too much work. The Koran articulates great faith in the individual, assuring each one of us that we are capable of doing the work that our meaning intentions lay out for us.
In the Hindu tradition, widely held to be the most pluralistic of the major world religions, the Hindu Saint Ramakrishna explained, “Let each man follow his own path. If he sincerely and ardently wishes to know God, peace be unto him! He will surely reach Him.” Ramakrishna, a teacher believed to have attained Enlightenment, announces with no hedging that there is no external power who is making decisions about what is the “right thing” to dedicate yourself to and no single way to make meaning. Any activity can become meaningful to you when you decide that it should be so—and will take you in the direction you hope to go, that of meaning and righteousness.
To the lingering question always posed to existentialists, “Well, what if I decide to invest meaning in kicking puppies and eating babies?”, Ramakrishna is again clear: all will be well “if he sincerely and ardently wishes to know God.” That is, all will be well if you sincerely and ardently put into play your best principles and highest moral sense. Creating pain and suffering in puppies and babies is not likely to strike you as positive and so you would foreswear those activities, because your moral sense is built right into you. When you actively make meaning, you are tuning in to that moral sense. You do not have to worry that personal meaning-making will lead to your immorality, unless you fear that you are intrinsically immoral or inherently unable to tell a right thing from a wrong thing.
In the Buddhist tradition, the following passage from the Buddha (in the Kalama Sutta) is telling:“Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay…. But, O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong, and bad, then give them up... and when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.”
The Buddha puts it simply and clearly: You must decide for yourself what you want to believe and where you want to invest meaning, and then you must commit to what you have chosen. The work you choose will not be beyond you; as the excerpt from the Koran insisted, you have been given the capacity to sufficiently choose and commit. Nor should you be afraid of taking a wrong step, because, as Ramakrishna explained, any path has the potential to be the right path. Yes, you will be uncertain at times. Yes, there will come moments when you need to reevaluate your individual meaning investments.
But the existential threads in every tradition suggest that you have faith that what you choose for yourself is right for you and that you have the ability to accomplish the arduous work of personal meaning-making. It may be scary, but this cycle of committing yourself and reevaluating your commitments is, according to every tradition, living!
If you want to don the mantle of meaning-maker but feel reluctant, one or more of these objections are likely at play—and maybe all ten of them. These are worrisome objections and it is perfectly understandable that you might find yourself unwilling to set off on a course of constant choosing, earthquake meaning shifts, unmitigated personal responsibility, and all the rest. Still, you know your own truth. Isn’t this the path you always envisioned for yourself?
If it is, you might try to meet these ten objections one by one, simply and forthrightly, in your own language. This is how I might meet them. What arguments or language would you use?
• Meaning-making is an arrogant idea
.......“I am just living as I see fit.”
• Meaning-making flies in the face of tradition
.......“Yes, it does.”
• Meaning-making is an obscure phrase
.......“No, I understand what it means.”
• Meaning-making demands too much personal responsibility
.......“No, being responsible appeals to me.”
• Meaning-making is too much work
.......“Yes, it is a lot of work, but it is the right work and the only work.”
• Meaning-making involves too much choosing
.......“It does! I don’t know if I am equal to all this choosing—I can only try.”
• Meaning-making increases core anxiety
.......“It does and it doesn’t. In a way, it actually reduces it.”
• Meaning-making is an invitation to make big mistakes
.......“Yes, it is, I suppose.”
• Meaning-making guarantees that meaning will never be settled
.......“I always knew that about life.”
• Meaning-making is as artificial and subjective an idea as any other idea about meaning
......."Of course it is. And I embrace it as the way that makes the most sense to me.”
If I have met your objections—or if you have met your own objections—it is time to don the mantle of meaning-maker. You can do this by saying out loud, “I am a meaning maker, with all that entails.” You might make your commitment more real by going out and purchasing some absurd garment, donning it, and feeling different. You might make your commitment more real by walking up to people and, by way of introduction, announcing, “I make my meaning!” Or you might do nothing fanciful: you might just stand up.
That is the essential action and the essential position.
© Eric Maisel, 2006. All rights reserved.
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