Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Technique in search of meaning

Cleaning off my desk I found a piece of paper with a quote from a guy I never heard of.

Digression:  To me, that is a red alert that I probably don't want to waste time reading what follows.  I often wonder why so many people append quotes from nonentities to their email messages or PowerPoint presentations.  I guess the fact that somebody -- who cares who -- said it is supposed to impart extra validity.  Perhaps I could start a side business distributing snappy quotes for people to use in such situations.  Here's a sample you can use for free:  "PowerPoint rots the brain." -- Kathleen Loomis 

End of digression.

But whoever the guy is, the quote is fascinating, which is why the piece of paper has been sitting on my desk for months.

Why Art Cannot Be Taught, by James Elkins

"...this way of speaking about technique is sometimes itself a technique [for the artist] to avoid thinking about meaning...  The more time she spent on techniques, the less she had for pondering her subject matter."  But "no technique is without meaning.  I think the idea that some techniques are merely techniques and others have meaning, is connected to the idea that some talk about technique is a way of not coming to terms with one's self.  If you believe that techniques are separate from meaning, then you can go on experimenting with them and not be impelled to think consistently or directly about yourself, and the meanings you want or need.  Conversation about technique is conversation about meaning: it is just a special way of talking about meaning that does not allow the speaker to acknowledge as much."

I think fiber artists should read that through a couple of times and see how deeply it stabs us in the gut.  One of the things we love about making art out of fiber is that we have so many fabulous techniques at our disposal.  We love to learn new ones, and when we see somebody else's work our first thought often is "how did she do that??" 

By contrast, what do painters have to learn about and choose from?  I guess you have different kinds of paint, and you can put the paint on in various ways, such as brushing, spooning, spraying, pouring or flinging.  And probably many fine distinctions that I am totally ignorant of.  But nowhere near the huge variety of materials and techniques that fall under the heading of fiber art.

I wonder whether painters go to workshops on "impasto techniques with your palette knife" or "stain-painting with water-tension breaker" -- probably not.  Yet flip through the brochure for the 2011 Quilt Surface Design Symposium, which I also found on my desk, and find  classes on bead embroidery, working with thickened dye, and simulating jade and turquoise with polymer clay.  That's probably a cheap shot (but it sure is an easy one) because we've all taken workshops like that.  I suppose painters learn to use their palette knife in Painting 101 in art school, but so many fiber artists (a) didn't attend art school or (b) did, but didn't learn how to use thickened dye or polymer clay.

As someone who never attended art school, I can recall my own workshop history in learning to dye, felt, make paper, strip-piece, do bead weaving and use a swage tool, to name a few.  Those workshops were informative, productive and a lot of fun.  But the hard part is what you do when you come home with a new technique.  Too many people then make work with the single purpose of showcasing it, which leads to a lot of mediocre art, as far as I have seen. 

But I have digressed again.  Let's revisit Elkins' comments and try to figure out what he's saying.  I'm not sure whether he's annoyed at artists who talk about technique rather than meaning, or at those whose work contains techniques rather than meaning.  Or maybe both.  The message I would like to take from his comments is that technique has meaning, and I am challenged to think how that plays out in my own work.

My conclusion is that my work is about disintegration, or perhaps about efforts to prevent it.  I see so many aspects of our society and our environment under extreme tension, starting to come apart, and the fragility of the bonds that hold things in place.  My work depicts many, many, many small bits that are held together in complicated structures by fragile bonds, sometimes in orderly array but more often not. 

The techniques I use support the meaning, because my techniques are to start with many, many, many small bits and sew them together.  Sewing itself, of course, exists primarily as a mechanism for joining, so what better technique to use in aid of this metaphor.

What would you say about your own work?


  1. I don't go to a lot of workshops because I need to be designing and working on my own things, however when I do go to a workshop I look at it as a play date and an opportunity to be social or talk to the instructor. I know there are a lot of workshop junkies out there and that's cool, but it would drive me crazy and turn my mind in on itself. I prefer meditative over information overload. My meaning is in the process and not the product....although I love it when something turns out better than expected.

  2. James Elkins is an art historian and critic:

  3. Sometimes (often?) someone you never heard of says something worth quoting, and if the source isn't given, it's plagiarized, right?

    You just proved the first part of my comment.

    I read a quotation about artists' creeds from an unknown this morning that I liked; it was in Robert Genn's newsletter:" Inspiration is for amateurs--the rest of us just show up and get to work." Don't know who it was, but at least I'm not claiming it as my own.

    As for PowerPoint rotting the brain, are you familiar with the work of Edward Tufte? That's a recurring point for him.

  4. Everyone learns differently--some are solitary learners; some are social learners. There is room for all means of obtaining knowledge. I do agree that how you use that knowledge to convey meaning is the important part.

    I'm working on a piece now (and have been for awhile) that needs a couple of more things to be added before I feel I can convey the true meaning of the piece. I believe that one of the reasons I've had trouble finishing this piece is because I don't have a variety of "tools in my arsenal." I've had trouble figuring out a way to convey my message in fabric. I've been collecting "tools" through workshops, books, discussion, etc. I'm much closer now to a "meaningful" finish to the piece than I would have been on my own.

    "To each his own"...I'm sure I should reference an author, but I don't know who first said this.

  5. I'm not against quoting people, but so many of the "quotes" appended to people's emails are insipid. It doesn't matter

    As Kay pointed out, Edward Tufte, an expert in presentation of information in graphic form, thinks Power Point, by forcing information into bullet points whether it fits conceptually or not, helps us overlook problems. He famously maintained that the O-ring failure that doomed the Challenger can be directly traced back to a Power Point presentation that buried the important data of low-temperature failure. Thanks, Kay, for the reminder!

  6. Kay, I read that quote in R. Genn's newsletter also. It is attributed to Chuck Close. I remember it because I copied it down for personal.......... ummmmm, inspiration. Don't worry, I'm not going to append it to anything, it's just tucked into my notebook.

  7. I don't or can't take in workshops and frankly I like being my own artist. I read and check blogs and get ideas to try. It makes my art really a part of me, a stamp of my soul.
    I revel in techniques! I try different techniques to get across the idea. Usually I have to explain the background so the whole picture can be understood but I enjoy that too.