"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Working to a Theme

I’m not a fan of theme exhibitions.

The disclaimer: I do have a piece in the exhibition Green, which just opened at the Textile Museum in Washington DC. I haven’t seen the show, but hope to. But right now I don’t know if the bias expressed here applies to it or not.

Frankly, I don’t really understand why theme shows are so popular. I’m not on the bandwagon. Most of the shows I’ve seen that were built around a theme felt trite and weren’t the best examples of the work I knew the artists could create.
But maybe themes give the venue something to build on. When I challenged the value of a theme for the future Surface Design Association conference (San Antonio 2013) the conference manager was polite but firm. It only took a week to receive a forwarded email from her written by a presenter whose entire body of work had shifted – impacted by the Confluence theme around which the 2011 conference is constructed.

Last Sunday I went to the San Antonio Museum of Art to see the much anticipated exhibition The Missing Peace – art work inspired by the Dalai Lama. I could hardly wait. The theme issue didn’t occur to me until I got there and walked through the show. It was very disappointing. An impressive roster of names, but very little that was inspiring. Even some textile pieces (Yippee in a major museum) but not good ones. Some mildly interesting ideas. The Dalai Lama’s shoes and a photo of the aura surrounding them. (When told of the aura, the Dalai Lama smiled and suggested that perhaps the aura was really that of his cobbler, who’d repaired the shoes three times in the recent past.)

How could I love the idea of the theme and find the actual artwork falling flat?

Was it because as good as the artists are, most of them weren’t making work that would have been made anyway? Most of it was work created because who wouldn’t want to be in a show inspired by the Dalai Lama? I’d sure give it a shot if invited. This little opinion would fly out the window so fast your head would spin.

But It isn’t just about The Missing Peace. The Handweaver’s Guild of America always mounts a set of shows related to their Convergence conference that are theme driven. I never pass up an opportunity to enter their singularly worthy fabric lengths exhibition, but I always struggle with the theme. I don’t live in New Mexico. How authentic is it to work to a theme related to the landscape there? And why? Can’t those of us who work in that format just send gorgeous, creative, thought-provoking entries with a wide range of themes? Wouldn’t that sort of show be just as successful?
Maybe it’s sour grapes because I didn’t get in last time, even though my fabric was wonderful. It didn’t fit the theme, according to the juror.

Lots of people will disagree with me and you’ve got the right to do so. But I guess I am a purist. Art is sacred. I’d rather artists be a bit obstinate when it comes to personal work. There are so many compromises in Life. If you’ve got a piece that fits a theme, that’s different. But working to one? I’m wary.


  1. "Frankly, I don’t really understand why theme shows are so popular. I’m not on the bandwagon."

    But didn't you just have a 48 piece show all done in a color scheme of white/gray/black? Weren't you working to a theme of a chosen color scheme?

  2. I find that many juried shows with a theme veer off the theme so that work the jurors like can be included which, in my opinion, waters down the theme. I really do agree with you, Jane. I am getting weary of making work to fit a theme. I have recently felt that I am getting bogged down and not doing what I want to do. I keep saying, when I finish this, I am going to do my thing!! I keep getting pulled back in.

  3. I have had the same feeling as Gerrie. But I continue to enter themed shows because that is what is available to me. I actually had a rejection notice because the stated theme had "gone in a different direction" from the original intent. What's up with that?
    I also have a problem with size restrictions. If my work is best in a format of, say, 30 X 24, then making it larger to fit someone's 36" or 40" minimum makes no sense. But if I don't, then I cannot enter the show. And if I don't enter shows, then no one will see my art.... So what's the answer?

  4. Yikes. What IS the answer?
    Sue, I did mean theme shows dictated by an outside venue as opposed to themes we choose for ourselves. I consider that discipline and yes, I had a heck of a time sticking to black, gray and white for 48 pieces!! But it was what I set for myself as a goal, and in the end, I learned a lot from the limitations. What we impose on ourselves is quite different from what is imposed by a Call for Entries to a theme.

  5. I generally agree that outside themes can be distractions that lead you down tangents and do not inspire your best work. But I recently was invited to be in a theme show and to my surprise, the work I produced was successful and exciting.

    Yes, it was a continuation of a current series, but working to the theme challenged me to try something new that I probably wouldn't have done without the theme invite. You never know what's going to provide some inspiration.

    So I say kick the tires on a theme and see if it might work for you. If not, pass, but if it strikes up some thoughts, then maybe it's a good idea.

  6. Trying to shoehorn your work into a theme imposed from outside is rarely successful. Self imposed themes are often triggered by previous work or inner contemplations whose time has come. We keep doing it, because we seek the shows not the themes. Sometimes luck runs our way and themes can chime with something within. Do themes make it easier to curate, hang and market an exhibition?