Yes, I know that this debate is supposed to be over, that this issue is so yesterday… Except it is not over. Many of my fellow quilt artists, as an example, are running away from the word “quilt” like the plague, and for good reason. A couple of recent articles have inspired me to bring this issue up with you, Ragged Cloth Cafe regulars. Here we are: sitting at our tables, a cup of coffee and our laptops on the table. It is just the place to engage in eternal debates, like the artists of the Parisian avant-garde whiling away their afternoons endlessly discussing those issues that refuse to go away.
The tension between modern craft and fine art had been stirring in the back of my mind for a while, when I chanced upon Paul Greenhalgh’s piece in American Craft (vol 67, n. 5, p. 121). Greenhalgh describes how the treatment that modern art historians granted the different visual arts have determined their economic and social fate in the 20th century. “Painting existed and thrived in the 20th century as part of the discourse of modernity”. However, “the concept of craft (…) is something the modern leaves behind (…). To be ignored in the project of modernity is to be denied space within the cultural hierarchy, and it largely explains the philosophical, cultural, and, alas, economic, state of things.”
Anna von Mertens, “MATRIX 207/Suggested North Points”, Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, California, 2003. Photo courtesy of Jean-Michel Addor.
Basically, Craft has been left out of the story, the one where Art plays a leading role. The story that galleries, dealers, museums use to determine value, to sell and buy, to preserve for posterity. The story that allows the work of some artists to be taken seriously. This story known as the art world. If this picture is true for Craft in general, it is even more true for Craft of domestic origin: textiles such as quilts or knitting.
Once inferiority with respect to Art becomes a defining characteristic of Craft in the art historical discourse, the need to get away from Craft is born: the former Museum of American Craft changes its name, and what used to be called art quilts adopts the less loaded term of mixed media. Those are symbolic gestures, but indicative of an effort to get included in the right cultural story line.
Well, I am getting frustrated with those legitimizing efforts. I cannot help but seeing them as a missed opportunity. To my delight, then, I read a couple months later, also in American Craft (vol 67, n. 6, p. 90), Glenn Adamson’s write-up on his recent book “Thinking Through Craft” (2007): “I have tried to make the case that craft’s inferiority to fine art is its defining theoretical and social property. This means that rather than attempting to legitimize craft as art (…), I wanted to do the opposite. I tried to write about craft as an antithesis, or foil, to the ideals of modern art. Moreover, I wanted to understand how artists who have responded to modernism–some of who are potters and weavers, but many who are painters, sculptors or conceptual artists–have used craft’s apparent disempowerment as a tool of analysis and critiques”.
Right on! I couldn’t agree more. As an artist working in a craft medium I am increasingly skeptical of the value of appropriating modern art properties (such as moving the quilt off the bed and on to the wall) in an attempt to cloak our work with fine art’s legitimacy. To the contrary, I’d like to focus on this theoretical inferiority as a source of strength and vitality. I’d like to view it as a means for Craft to engage with modern art in a way that can bring inclusion in the critical discourse and establish a parity of sorts within the cultural hierarchy. I do not want to be part of Art’s story. I want to be part of Craft’s challenge to Art’s story. I’d like to harness the subversive potential implicit in those neglected practices and create multiple stories, all equally valid and legitimate.
Lisa Solomon, “Over the river and through the woods”, 2007. (installation shot by the artist)
The story of Craft as a challenge is also developing in other cultural domains. Think about the critique of current economics encapsulated in the DIY movement where textile techniques (home made clothes, anyone?) play a leading role. Think about the local food movement, which has at its core the “hand made” family meal, and offers an alternative to industrial agriculture. Movements which address the breaking points of established cultural hierarchies from different angles, creating an environment where crochet and painting can share the same legitimizing history.
Because talking about art is a poor substitute for looking at art, let me leave you with a few links to some artists that have gotten me to rethink the relationship between craft and art.
- Anna von Mertens keeps the quilt on the bed, and brings the bed into the art gallery: brilliant!
- Lisa Solomon‘s multi layered and loving tribute to the doily revels in a play of opposites that transport the viewer into a place of integration
- Lisa Anne Auerbach: political garments, richly intellectual, wearable and comfortable.
- Joana Vasconcelos takes lace’s benign use use as cover and decoration beyond its traditional context and scale, forcing the viewer to pay attention and take a second look at the familiar.
I am inspired to look anew at my own quilts. I wonder if I am not looking too hard in Art’s direction oblivious to the power inherent in Craft’s perceived inferiority. What do you think? Should we take the quilt off the wall and put it back on the bed?