Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Up the establishment

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?


  1. This is a topic with many aspects to it - you might want to consider a book! I'll just make a couple of points on this interesting subject!
    1. One thing that strikes me is that it's how the subject is treated that is of prime importance. If you can take puppies or kittens and make something that is fresh, original, striking and a good strong composition about them, I think that's fine.
    On the other hand you could make an ugly quilt about an ugly subject - think of all that horrible tampon art we had in the 80s! - and it would be ghastly.
    2.If jurors are chosen from the commercial quilt world (and I don't know that they are) then it would definitely be in their interests to vote for something that takes 100,000 crystals!!
    3. as you so rightly say, the point of the Houston show is sales, so you need to appeal to the LCD in people's taste. I would say it's done very deliberately (nothing cynical about me!). thanks for writing!

  2. Throughout history, the same cycle repeats- something is artistically innovative, cutting edge. Then it's adopted (gradually) by the mainstream. That leads artists to try something new,to do something rebellious. Those actions/reactions also reflect what else is going on- economics, politics, etc.

    Maybe it's more important to listen to your own inner artistic voice, worrying less about what the trends are, who the judges are, or even who the audience is. True artistic integrity may come more fully when the voice we concern ourselves with most is our own.

    If, on the other hand, winning the prize is the goal, then listening to the voice of the people or the judges may be more important.

    (It's funny to think about how the reverse happens- many "regular folk" shake their heads in amazement when they see a Pollack or a Picasso or a Hesse in a museum and they wonder, sometimes outloud, how that could be called art...)
    I guess what I'm saying is I think there's room for all of us.
    Thank you for the thought-provoking post! Happy Thanksgiving!!

  3. Interesting articles, Kathy.

    Most quilters are crafters, not artists, and only a certain proportion of the ones trying to make art will actually succeed. There's been a lot of discussion about getting textile art accepted into the mainstream art world, and I think that is where the majority of the darker side quilts and quilt artists are heading.

    You are right, that shows, big and small alike, exist to encourage us to try new products, and produce decorative quilts. It used to be matching points, then adding embellishments, and now all over dense quilting, needing stitch regulators and top end machines.

    But I don't think this is a quilt related issue. There are thousands of people producing watercolours of flowers, collages and mundane pottery. People like to make things. The fact that most of those items would be considered bad art isn't relevant.

  4. "sappy, crappy ugly"
    This phrase really stood out for me, and I've now been attacked by a terrible urge to make a puff-painted sweat shirt (the nadir of crappy) that says "Down with Sappy Crappy Ugliness!"

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  5. Kathy- it's like comparing paint by numbers to a Matisse. Totally different world.

  6. too bad the $98,000 in prize money is going to the paint-by-numbers, not to the Matisse

  7. Dear Kathy,
    That was my response to most, but not all of the Houston winners for the past several years. It's not the skills or materials that make art, it's the thought/emotion/intention being expressed. That's why really good and really bad art is rare; mediocre and competent is more easily attainable.
    If you really want to see sappy, crappy art and craft, (and sometimes frightening and deranged), go to !!
    Linda Laird

  8. Keep thinking, and posting, Kathy. To answer your question; I vote to secede. But then.....

  9. Life is messy. And in the words of the great Clifford Geertz, people are messy. I think that's why I am attracted to quilts that are not perfect or show the "error" of the handmade quilt. I appreciate the process. This is why the Gees Bend quilters are so cool. I realize this is waaaay out of the art quilting for prizes arena. I'm not an art quilter but as a textile artist I know what appeals to me. I don't know that I personally would buy or hang a perfectly rendered, symmetrical, quilt with a nature scene in my home. I'd be more inclined to buy something urbane or insinuating the dysfunction of people. I also love selvage quilting (did I spell that correctly? :) I'm addicted to sewing little scraps together now thanks to you Kathy. I still have an issue with finishing. I would get kicked out of any respectable quilters group I think!