A beautiful composition caught my eye at a quilt show. The colors and intricate pattern were mesmerizing… it reminded me of abstracted light on water. How did they do that? I wondered.
I walked up to the quilt and discovered it was created by a computer generated image that had been printed onto a whole cloth. Oh, well that wasn’t as impressive as I expected. The quilting, I criticized, isn’t even very imaginative. The stitches just follow along the lines of the printed image. All my amazement evaporated; I had thought this complex design must have been something only an expert craftsperson could have pulled off. I was disillusioned to see how simple it was. I have to say, I was disappointed. Then I noticed that this quilt won a ribbon in the show. Then I just got mad.
I complained inside my head: “That’s cheating. They did the whole thing on a computer. What is this doing in a quilt show anyway? What artistic skill is being demonstrated here? For that matter, what quilting skills are being rewarded by a ribbon? This is digital photography, not fabric art.”
But on the way home, I stepped off my high horse a bit. I asked myself “What am I so mad about? Why do I feel cheated? Am I just jealous that they won a ribbon and I think I spent more time on my work then they did?”
The answer was I was upset because I was conflicted. I loved the design but I didn’t respect how it was made. Is that a fair judgment? To test my position, I tried to make an argument for the other side:
· On first sight of this quilt, I was impressed and intrigued. It had a strong composition and compelled me to come for a closer look. For fine art, the visual impact is the top priority and I admit that the design here was very successful.
· The artwork was made out of layers of fabric held together by stitches, so it met the accepted definition of a quilt. In practical terms, I could not object to it being in a quilt show. There were plenty of other examples of “Whole cloth” quilts on display.
· The label explained that the design was a digital image printed on fabric; there was no deception in its presentation. Therefore I could not accuse the artist of “cheating”.
· The use of technology does not necessarily preclude something from being Art. Photography was not considered an artistic endeavor because it didn’t require any painting or drawing skills. When the sewing machine was invented and used by quilters, many traditionalists objected to its use, arguing that it was an easy short-cut. At first, machine sewn pieces were not considered “real” quilts.
So with the invention of digital cameras and computer software, of course artists will be experimenting & assimilating it into their work. The quilt in question made use of the latest technology. Is that any different than when I use an electric sewing machine? Or when I take digital photos as part of my research?
The whole thing reminded me of a joke – How many artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: 100. One to screw it in, and 99 to say “I could have done that!”
So I amended my judgment as follows:
1. I was wrong in my assertion that this quilt did not belong in a quilt show. It clearly met the requirements of art as well as the definition of a quilt.
2. Technology may make the production process easier, but it is still just a tool. It can be used to create a successful design, or as a crutch for a poor design. The quilt in question demonstrated fine art principals successfully. I wouldn’t have been drawn in for a closer look otherwise.
With that said, I still connect with fabric art by the process as well as the result. To me, the direct manipulation of materials by the artist and the wonderful “hands on” building process is my favorite aspect of the work.
In this situation, I just couldn’t see the individual in the quilt. This may be the limits of my own imagination rather than an affect of technology. Clearly the manipulation of materials occurred, but the materials were digital pixels, bytes of data and an industrial printing machine, done before the quilt came into being. Maybe it’s simply too far removed for me.
Since no fabric pieces were used, I couldn’t read the story of the process in the artist’s cutting, piecing, layering etc. There were no surface treatments to record a brushstroke of paint or even the passing of a needle through a bead. The quilting stitches traced contours of the printed forms, revealing nothing of the artist’s hand. In essence, the artist stayed hidden inside the technology.
I discovered that my connection to artwork depends on what is revealed about the artist, maybe even more than what I see as an end result. Of course, a strong design will catch my eye but it takes more to win me over. The truth is, I found out that (for myself), visual impact without a back-story leaves me cold.
What connects you to an artwork? Do you care about the creative process behind the image? Or is the final visual impact the only thing that matters?