The popular myth about ‘creating’

This afternoon we met up with friends at one of those ‘paint your own pottery’ places.   This one was originally called, “Our Name is Mud”,  but later the company split and “Our Name is Mud” became retail only.  The ‘paint your own’ side of things was renamed “Make”.   (Which I always thought was a huge step down as far as store names go.)   Now they have changed again, expanding their product line to offer jewelry, candles and greeting cards, and renaming themselves “Make Meaning”.   Hmm.    The thing is, I don’t have a problem with this place as such.  Every now and then it’s fun to go and paint a bowl, or string some beads together for a bracelet.   Or decorate a candle or a greeting card.   But “Make Meaning”?   One of the reasons I never warmed to the name “Make” was that you don’t actually make anything.   You decorate pottery, and now candles and cards.   I suppose you could say that stringing beads is ‘making’ jewelry; unless you are a glass blower you probably won’t create the beads on your own, but it is still assembly more than creation.     Now, however,  not only are we supposed to feel that we are making something when we go to this establishment, but that we are making something with meaning.

I started reading Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft a few days ago, and he addresses this very thing in one of the chapters.   He gives several examples, but the one most relevant to our experience today is the popular Build-A-Bear Workshop.  (In which I am proud to say my kids had only a short-lived interest, quickly figuring out that they didn’t really get to do anything there.)   This is what he says about it:

“…we have come to live in a world that precisely does not elicit our instrumentality, the embodied kind that is original to us.  We have too few occasions to do anything, because of a certain predetermination of things from afar. …One of the hottest things at the shopping mall right now is a store called Build-A-Bear, where children are said to make their own teddy bears.   I went in to one of these stores, and it turns out that what the kid actually does is select the features and clothes for the bear on a computer screen, then the bear is made for him.  Some entity has leaped in ahead of us and taken care of things already, with a kind of solicitude.  The effect is to preempt cultivation of the embodied agency, the sort that is natural to us.  Children so preempted will be more well adjusted to emerging patterns of work and consumption…In picking out your bear’s features…you choose among the predetermined alternatives.  Each of those alternatives offers itself as good.  The consumer is disburdened not only of the fabrication, but of a basic evaluative activity.  The consumer is left with a mere decision.  Since this decision takes place in a playground-safe field of options, the only concern it elicits is personal preference.”

And in an earlier section he says that “choosing is not creating”.     So I’m sitting there this afternoon in this place called “Make Meaning”, the wheels spinning in my head.   There is an idea forming that has something to do with the ‘disburdening’ Crawford speaks of and the myth of creativity being perpetuated by places like Build-A-Bear and Make Meaning and how this might relate to the disconnectedness felt by most young people, especially those attending schools.   Perhaps, just perhaps, all those teens who’d rather text than do homework feel that way because somewhere in their gut they know that they aren’t going to be allowed to create their future.   The great and powerful Oz will lay out a range of options and tell them to choose.   But only from among the options given.  “Take charge of your education” is the tag line of a commercial currently running on the Nickelodeon network.  (They recommend holding a school car wash as one way to accomplish this. ??)    If kids were really going to take charge of their education and be the creators of their future, they’d need to drop out of school and probably go into business for themselves.

They don’t know that, of course,  because they’ve been led to believe that when you go to Build-A-Bear you are creating something.   And when you paint a ceramic robot, like Ben did today, you are making something with meaning.   Then why is it so unfulfilling?  (As a weird aside, my computer thinks that unfulfilling isn’t a word.  Oh those optimistic people at Mac!)   Somewhere deep inside these kids know that the great and powerful Oz is just a guy behind the curtain, selling them a bill of goods.

We’ll still go paint pottery now and then.  We’ve also talked about learning to throw pots at a real pottery place in the village.  As long as we’re under no illusion that painting the pieces = creating them, it’s a fun activity to do on a rainy afternoon with friends.  Meaning in our lives?  We’ll find that elsewhere.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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