After my post yesterday wondering why so few quilt artists walk on the wild side, with images or themes about dark emotions, several readers left very thoughtful comments, raising so many points that I wanted to respond at length.
Donna is right that I want us all to think about what we’re making, what we’re exhibiting, what we’re rewarding. So much about establishments, in no matter what field, from government to education to social mores to art, has accreted over the years without conscious reflection by the people who follow the party line. It was wonderful this week to read that finally the people have risen up to say “enough” with the security theater of gynecological patdowns at the airport. Yet for years we’ve all been putting up with it, passing it off with the brain-dead “we have to do it to be safe.” It would be better if we did more thinking and less going along, and not just at the airport.
Meanwhile, the huge establishment of quilt shows, quilt magazines, quilt workshops and quilt supplies has gotten to the point where “that’s the way it’s done” has become a huge force – for the good? Or not?
I don’t think this force is taking us totally in the wrong direction, but it’s definitely urging us strongly toward a side of the street that I don’t want to walk on. The explosion of interest in crafts of all kinds, and quilting in particular, over the last few decades has been remarkable, and has brought many benefits. It’s much easier to buy good fabric, good thread, good sewing machines, equipment such as rotary cutters and mats and a myriad of other things that simply weren’t there 30 or 40 years ago. Magazines, books and the internet allow everybody to keep up with events in the field, connect with fellow quilters, learn techniques and solve problems. There are quilt shows around every corner, giving even beginners a chance to see good quilts in person and display their own work. And there are teachers available everywhere to show you anything you might ever want to learn.
And yet. Go into that craft store or quilt shop, and see how easy it is to be enabled to make truly awful work. You can buy kits or patterns to help you make sappy, crappy ugly quilts or embroideries or puff-painted sweatshirts. You can take a class in how to sew beads and angelina fibers and silk cocoons onto your sappy, crappy quilt, perhaps from somebody who only a year ago was as much a beginner as you are. And returning to my post from yesterday, you can find juried shows to accept your quilt and even give it a prize, apparently using evaluation standards that do not extend to art or design.
Catherine commented yesterday that representational “agenda art” is often bad, citing “clunky, obvious images.” Yes, and it’s also true that a lot of decorative art is bad, with clunky, obvious images. There’s too much bad art out there, no matter what the subject matter. It’s true in every medium, but let’s stick with quilts for today. My concern is that bad art seems perfectly well accepted, even rewarded, in the big-time quilt extravaganzas as well as the small-time guild shows. The last time I attended the big Paducah quilt show, the top award went to an attractive quilt whose claim to fame was that it had 100,000+ Swarovski crystals applied to the back side.
(A whole ‘nother question is how art fares at the “art quilt” shows like Quilt National and Quilt Visions, but I’m not going to touch that one today.)
You may wonder why I even try to look for art at Paducah or Houston. The purpose of these shows is to display attractive work, competently executed, and please the crowds enough that they will buy lots of stuff from the vendors. The purpose is not to stretch the boundaries. The problem is that the big winners in Houston this month, which will now hit the circuit and probably be big winners in Lancaster or Paducah next spring, set up “standards” that thousands of other quilters will aspire to. So we’ll now have more symmetrical, monochromatic, fussy medallion quilts, and of course lots more flowers and trees, and they’ll win ribbons at Lancaster and Paducah.
Obviously there are thousands of quilters out there who are doing pretty well in terms of technique, productivity and enthusiasm. If only they were encouraged by the establishment to make good art instead of mediocre or bad!
So do we even care? Should we challenge the establishment? How would we go about that if we wanted to? Or should we just secede? What do you think?