I wrote recently about a book I’ve just read by Elissa Auther, “String Felt Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art.” She had some provocative things to say about the big quilt hoohah in the 1970s, which started with the exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Quilt collectors Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof had been buying up old quilts for a long time, and managed to promote a show in which they were presented as abstract art.
The pieced quilts in the Whitney show and a similar show of Navajo blankets in London three years later created the kind of gee-whiz bombshell that we witnessed more recently with the Gees Bend quilts. Critics were flabbergasted to see that these generally anonymous weavers and quilters had produced – well, we might even call it – – – ART!! (And to think that many of them were women, making it even more astonishing!!!!!)
I think that all of us who make quilts as art have profound ambivalence about these blockbuster shows. On the one hand, it’s nice to see quilts hanging on the walls of big museums, pulling in the viewers and being regarded as ART. On the other hand, why are the critics so damn surprised that quilts can be – ART? Why can’t the critics show up at any of the other shows featuring quilts or other things made of fiber and say some nice things about them too? Why do they always preface their remarks with patronizing back-handed compliments?
It wasn’t till I read Auther’s book, however, that I realized the major on-the-other-hand about the Whitney or the Gees Bend shows. Namely, the quilts are so highly regarded not because they’re wonderful quilts but because they look so much like paintings.
She writes that the Whitney show, “in both its selection of pieced quilts and their installation on the wall, complemented current trends in abstract painting, granting quilts a new aesthetic status as high art by virtue of their perceived likeness to” paintings.
Auther quotes a “feminist quilt scholar,” Patricia Mainardi, who riffs on these same themes: “although the sexist and racist art world will, if forced, include token artists, they will never allow them to expand the definition of art, but will include only those whose work can be used to rubber-stamp already established white male art styles. Because… pieced quilts bear a superficial resemblance to the work of contemporary formalist artists such as Stella, Noland and Newman… male curators and critics are now capable of ‘seeing’ the art in them. But the applique quilts, which current male artists have not chosen to imitate, are therefore just written off as inferior art.”
Mainardi continues, “throughout his catalog essays… Holstein praises pieced quilts with the words ‘strong,’ ‘bold,’ vigorous,’ bravado,’ and ‘toughness,’ while he dismisses the applique quilts as ‘pretty,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘beautiful’ but ‘decorative.’ This is exactly the kind of phallic criticism women artists are sick of hearing.”
I can’t help but cheer Mainardi on, but must admit to a frisson or two of something that might resemble guilt. I much prefer pieced quilts over applique. And I strive for my own quilts to be ‘strong,’ ‘bold’ and ‘tough’ rather than ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful.’ So does that make me a phallic pig? Sure hope not. I’m going to contemplate that issue and write again after I’ve sorted out my own thoughts. Meanwhile, what do you think?