What is Art? Part 1: Background vs Composition by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles III, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles III, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

I teach a workshop for patchwork quilters called Darned Quilts. In that workshop, I show my students how to build a background cloth which they will later use for raw edge piecing to create an art quilt of their own design. The core ideas of the workshop provide a theoretical and practical basis for those who have little experience with design so they can learn as they play. I love it when any of my students takes what she learns from me and pushes it forward, makes a second or third piece along the same lines but always improving and moving beyond the basic concepts, something that is easy to do once you understand how to make a Darned Quilt.

Bubbles I, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles I, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

The background cloth as I intend it is always meant to look like some representation of photomicrography, like some snapshot of a narrow view of a much larger world, a field of shapes possessed of greater depth, motion and texture than what would be afforded by a plain piece of fabric. To create that illusion, a gradation background is enhanced with appliqués and trims, embroidery, cording and much more, each treatment applied as a separate layer to result in a seemingly random but even distribution of elements over the surface of the piece.

Background for Bubbles I

Background for Bubbles I

Despite my best efforts to guide my students down this path, which seems the safest for a first-time effort, in almost every class there will be one or two students who immediately ignore my sage wisdom and set about composing the background.

What do I mean by “composing?” I mean that instead of rather thoughtlessly scattering elements over the surface of the cloth as instructed, these individuals deliberately place each element in a designer-ly manner, with full recognition of the importance of each one in relation to the space it occupies and its neighbors. They intend to control each shape or line of trim through a conscious manipulation. These students seem to have an innate understanding of the space and the impact of each trim they apply, and they want to do it their way.

Early in my teaching of this workshop, I fought this tendency amongst my students. I mistakenly believed the only way to make a Darned Quilt was my way–you’ll note a certain lack of humility, yes? Well, we teach, and then we learn!

What I learned was that any student who took off in her own direction despite all efforts to follow my instructions would be equally as likely, if not more so, to produce something truly unique, beautiful and far more original than I had thought her capable of making. Compare, if you will, the treatment of the backgrounds from my Bubbles I and Tara Schmidt’s Skipping Stone. Hers was thoughtfully composed, whereas mine displays a more careless and seemingly random structure.

Skipping Stone, a Darned Quilt by Tara Schmidt

Skipping Stone, a Darned Quilt by Tara Schmidt

The point of this story is to raise with you certain questions about the difference between a background and a composition, and the relevance of each to the world of art. For centuries, traditional patchwork quilters have worked with geometric repeat patterns, quilt block designs that have become classics, with primary artistic focus on selection of fabric colors and prints and the sometimes-achieved secondary designs that can result as patches cut from the same fabrics merge across the design field.

Autumn Splendor, a traditional patchwork quilt from the Northshore Quilter's Guild, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Autumn Splendor, a traditional patchwork quilt from the Northshore Quilter’s Guild, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

At what point do such repeat pattern constructions shift to become works of art? How much composition is involved in setting out a repeat pattern? How important is composition to art?

My personal thoughts on the subject are that repeat patterns belong to the world of decorative arts, any place where the addition of a single motif or multiple repeat units will give a decorative appeal to some product that is essentially functional. Traditional patchwork quilted bed covers fit this definition: functional in warmth for comfortable sleeping but beautiful in their expressions of color and pattern.

Take that same admittedly beautiful bed cover and hang it on the wall; does that make it art? I think not. I think that to be considered art, the arrangement of shapes, the composition, needs to possess certain qualities.

High on my list is a focal point, some area of the image that commands our eyes to settle there. Busy-ness is great; it keeps us searching the image to gain maximum understanding of all it contains, but eventually there should be some focus to the confusion of thoughts provoked, some resting place for the spirit.

Variety is all-important, I believe, to art. Even the simplest abstract paintings like those of Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko possess variety. We have only to look a little closer to see the finer details without which the work would surely disappoint. Variety in the hues and values of colors, the size and nature of shapes, the widths and styles of linear elements – all these are critical to the making of art; all these contribute to the composition that makes art out of something that might otherwise rank as a background.

Balance of weight in composition is another factor I depend upon as an indicator of composition versus background. In a background, visual weight is distributed equally. In a composition, weight varies from one area of the image to another, but all “feels” right about that distribution because it is well balanced.

How important is framing? Now deceased Kenyan artist Mary Nicholas once visited me in my studio. Upon seeing a series of very small quilts I had mounted in shadowbox frames to make them more important on display, Mary remarked “Isn’t it amazing that the minute you put a frame on it, it becomes “art?!”

Diamond in the Rough, a Spirit Works framed quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Diamond in the Rough, a Spirit Works framed quilt by Dena Dale Crain

If I take three identical unframed stretched canvasses and paint one red, one blue and one yellow, and hang those three panels on a wall, is it art? Would a solid red canvas be considered as art by most people you know? I think not. I would say that it’s a block of color, it took no great thought or emotive involvement to produce it and it is not art by anyone’s standard.

Empty room with three painted panels - art?

Empty room with three painted panels – art?

However, what if I change the proportions of the three panels, making each one different? I carefully reposition and rehang the three panels. Is this art? I seem to see quite a bit of this going on in various interior decorating television programs as a kind of poor man’s art – easy, fast and inexpensive. If we expand our notion of art, it might well include the wall as canvas, and the canvasses as elements along with any furnishings in the room as well as doorways, windows or other architectural features. In this case, the entire wall, perhaps the entire room, becomes the medium. Is this art or mere design? What is the difference between design and art? Have we yet satisfactorily understood those definitions?

Furnished room with three different panels - art?

Furnished room with three different panels – art?

Now you know I am not an interior decorator! Nevertheless, are the three factors of focal point, variety and balance sufficient to qualify a creative image as art regardless of medium, more especially if it is framed?

How much of what we perceive to be art has to do with cultural conditioning? Other people tell us this is art and that is not, so we believe them, we buy into other people’s notions of what is art and what isn’t? And if it is art, is it good art? Who is to say?! Surely, the old cliché “I don’t know what art is, but I know whether I like it or not” ought to suffice, but does it?!

Please join this discussion with your opinions. I would love to hear what you think. Do you recognize a difference between a background and a composition? Do you have strong feelings that one is art more than the other? What factors do you use as indicators that what you’re viewing is art? Are you making art, and if so, how do you know that what you make is art?

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10 Responses to “What is Art? Part 1: Background vs Composition by Dena Dale Crain”


  1. 1 june December 3, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Was it Horace who said the purpose of art is “to educate and delight”? Seems to cover the territory without too many details –snort–

  2. 2 olganorris December 3, 2013 at 5:55 am

    Dena, I don’t blame you for staying in lurkdom as you say over the question of what is art. I believe it is not worth worrying about.
    What is art is a moveable question, answered in different ways by different people at different times. Basically, it could be said that the greater the consensus by those who have thought hard about the question over the years, then the more likely that the object concerned is art. Otherwise, as I think it might have been Tracey Emin who said something along the lines that if an artist calls herself an artists, then what she makes is art!

  3. 3 june November 24, 2013 at 11:11 am

    “Art”, as Olga has said, has many meanings. If you think about the “financial” attributes of art, you enter an entirely different world than the “making” of art and making (or process) is different from the success (or lack thereof) of the product. Art “education” can vary, being art history in a classroom through self-education by checking out what’s around us, through process, such as playing with color or shapes, from public schools through quilting workshops. So what is art? Well, it depends on the audience: children mimicing Van Gogh or the auction houses of Sothby and company. Even in a narrow world, museums define art somewhat differently than galleries do.

    Beyond that, as a teacher, Dena, you _must_ give guidelines to your students; they flounder without them. So you’ve found ways to make them comfortable while stretching their limits. That’s what good teachers do. But what you have come up with are truly only guidelines. Rothko has no focal point, nor does Jackson Pollock. Nor Andy Warhol, etc. etc. Great sculpture has to be seen from all directions, hence a single focal point wouldn’t work.

    But expressing this kind of complexity to students who are just moving from the over-all comforts of repeat patterns is probably counter-productive — and as a good teacher, you see that when you learn from your students.

    I don’t know what art is, much less what “good” art is. I know that what I love most is the learning — about art as I find it exhibited (thereby having some official status), as I read about it in other cultures and try to differentiate between what at first may look like a blur of a culture, and of course, physically manifesting what I’ve learned in my own work. I love to work and what better work than a process out of which comes something which sometimes pleases and sometimes disappoints, but always has been derived from my own hand and mind and heart. Ta-ta. I wax ponderous.

    I always read the discussions of “what is art” with a bit of cynical delight, wondering what ideas seems to surface at various times. It’s my own way of playing at analysis, which is another art — right?

    • 4 Dena Dale Crain December 1, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      I appreciate very much your comments about the importance, or lack thereof, of a focal point, June.

      My belief is that it’s fine to break the rules when you know the rules and you know that you are deliberately breaking them.

      As you point out, most students have not yet learned “the rules” so if they work without a focal point it is usually accidentally so.

      I came out of that era in fine arts when everyone was told to “loosen up.” That was the mantra, but what it meant to me was that there was no longer any discipline in the making of art. Anything went, and it often resulted in work that I deemed then, and would do so today, as inferior.

      Mastery of craft and the training of the eye are processes that must be observed before one can move to a more sublime level of creativity, don’t you think?

  4. 5 kathy loomis November 24, 2013 at 9:16 am

    I agree with you that repeat patterns are generally the province of decorative arts, but it doesn’t take much thinking to come up with examples of repeat patterns in High Art — Jackson Pollock; Op Art. They have no focal point but engage our visual attention anyway.

    I agree with Olga that to be art you need intention. Not sure that it’s possible to come up with other rules of thumb to successfully distinguish art from not-art. Not sure that’s even necessary.

    • 6 Dena Dale Crain December 1, 2013 at 10:23 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Kathy. I believe we’re all talking about the same thing–learning to walk before we run. I particularly like your reference to “intention.” That must surely be a valuable criteria for judging art.

  5. 7 olganorris November 24, 2013 at 5:24 am

    Gosh! Not only how long is a piece of string, but what is a piece of string!

    Well, taking your questions in the penultimate paragraph first: I think that what we perceive of as art has everything to do with cultural conditioning, and our access to the cultures of others both in time and space. As we are shown more about other cultures we accept more into the bag of bits we call art. I do think that it is not just serious educational inquiry which broadens general acceptance, but also lifestyle magazines and retail fashion which have frayed the edges of discrimination.

    Varying the sizes of your coloured pieces of stretched canvas makes no difference to their being art unless there is an originator who is an artist with a specific intention. Intention is vitally important, I think – although with art there is always room for exceptions. Also art is just a word, and words over time subtly or not so subtly come to mean something different within developing and changing cultures. What art meant when only a few privileged individuals were educated and/or had leisure, and what art means when we have almost universal education, and a large proportion of the population has considerable leisure is inevitably bound to be different. I have come to believe that these days the word art includes so many bits that the bag is splitting and the word is essentially meaningless for the very reason that it means so much.

    You also ask more specific questions about background and composition. As I have never had any formal quilt making education, I am talking from a position of specific ignorance – but, having my open mouth and my foot ready, here goes. I think of background as being an element within a composition. I think of a background only existing if there is a foreground, and composition is one element of the whole presentation. A great piece of work should have something more than the sum of its parts.

    I do not have any conscious yardsticks to measure what I look at, to decide whether it is art. This is a difficult topic for me, because I must admit to reacting instinctively. The instinct has been developed over decades of looking, and reading, and absorbing art criticism, and thus building my own opinion. There are probably several subconscious yardsticks – but I shall have to go away and think about them.

    As for my own work – I want to make serious work, call it art if you like. I try, but I have not come near success yet, I don’t think. But again, the lack of success in attaining what I want has nothing to do with composition, which on the whole I believe is successful. I have not yet been able to express sufficiently what I feel except in one or two cases.

    • 8 Dena Dale Crain December 1, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      Thank you for offering such valuable food for thought, Olga. I love the remarks in your first paragraph and your observation that the word “art” may be meaningless because it means so much is excellent. With so many bits going into the bag, as you describe it, I wonder whether art is merely decoration on a wall or a 3-d form that fills space in a curious way. I think this may be what I was getting at with my painted panels in the article–that if it decorates a wall, it’s “art!”

      For those of us engaged in making art because we love and are committed to the processes involved, of course that definition falls miserably flat. Ditto for those of us who are actually trying to convey ideas with our work, even more so!

      I also think you’re correct about background only existing when there is a foreground so that each defines the other. What disturbs me, however, is to see a piece that cries out for something else, a piece that visually falls apart, fails because of a lack of anything that generates interest. I’m reminded of Nancy Crow’s criterion of wanting a work of art to hold her attention for more than five minutes.

      A quick flip through my copy of Lark’s 500 Art Quilts in search of any piece I would consider to be background without foreground was not very successful, perhaps because these works were hand-picked for their artistic merit.

      One example came close: part of a diptych by Alison Muir called “Summers Passed.” Unfortunately I cannot find a link to this work so you won’t be able to see it without finding a copy of the book.

      Anyway, this piece is made in two parts. One is almost realistic in its depiction of a desert/beach scene with a large area one reads as sand, an orange/scarlet “sea” and a group of tiny figures resembling humans composed on the sand. The second panel is the part I’m referring to as a background because of its homogeneity and lack of anything else that really grabs our attention. The two panels together work beautifully well, the background panel adding weight and balance to the composition panel even as it shifts the position of the focal point within the finished display. The composed panel would not be so commanding if hung alone, and neither would the background panel, yet together they are very dramatic, indeed greater than the sum of their parts.

      Many years ago while taking a printing class with Kathleen Deneris, I printed a piece of cloth with a striped stencil, grading the colors of the paint from magenta to blue as I moved the stencil down the length of the cloth. I liked the piece so much that I put a lining on the back to finish the edges and give it more weight, then sewed a casing at the top and slipped a length of pipe into it through which I ran a ribbon. It has hung on the wall in my home ever since, and I still enjoy seeing it. A simple enough concept, but merely wall decoration, this panel is nothing I would call “art.” However, were I to go back into this piece and add some other composed shapes, maybe some embellishments, I could redefine it as art; what do you think? 😉

      • 9 olganorris December 2, 2013 at 3:45 am

        Dena, your stencilled panel as you describe it sounds like a piece of decorative art. Just because you decide to add to it would not necessarily make it anything other than an embellished piece of decorative art. Indeed, to make it interesting enough to hold one’s attention for more than five minutes does not necessarily make it anything other than interesting decorative art.
        To make a piece of work into what one would decisively describe as a ‘work of art’, then it must worm its way into your mind to delight, disturb, intrigue, … make you think for much longer than five minutes. It must return in your memory and rub away at your thoughts. Well, that’s what I think.

        • 10 Dena Dale Crain December 2, 2013 at 11:34 pm

          Olga, I often see art quilts that contain nothing more meaningful than my stenciled panel. That’s why I raised questions about whether a background, mostly lacking in composition and certainly missing a focal point, is sufficient to be regarded as art. The funny thing about my stenciled panel is that it means so much more to me than it would to anyone else. I never look at it without being amazed that “I actually made that!” and I remember with great fondness the experiences I had in the classroom doing the work. The panel also probably represents a turning point in my life, a time when I took charge over my materials and began doing things my way, so the panel causes me to notice it frequently and continue to find joy in it whenever I take time to re-examine it. I doubt very much that anyone else would become so involved in it, and that’s why I have a hard time calling it art.

          The whole question of what is art is such a gray area, debated over, surely, for centuries without finding conclusion. It comes up once a year, I think, on both QuiltArt and the SAQA Yahoo Group. I usually try to avoid such discussions entirely. In this one instance, I have come out of lurkdom to express concerns about whether some minimal standards should be understood as extant in art. If not, then at least I know that and can gracefully slip back into anonymity on the subject! 😉


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