Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bad analogies

I posted the other day about how many "art quilters" use flashy color and embellishments to conceal the fact that the bones of the piece -- the design and composition -- are wobbly.  Borrowing a remark from somebody writing about painting, I commented that such works are "all frosting, no cake."

Then I wrote:  "All frosting, no cake -- that's as good a description of a large portion of the 'art quilt' world as anything else you could come up with.  Unfortunately it's probably easier to find some of these no-cake wonders than it is to find quilts with more rigorous art underpinnings.

Go to the State Fair, for instance.  The judges are knowledgeable to the point of hysteria about stitching, binding and making points match, but generally have no training in design.  Go to the quilt shop, and find patterns and samples that showcase the latest fabrics but don't go much beyond cute in the artistic department.  Go to the magazines and books, and find project recipes complete with patterns and directions so you can replicate somebody else's superficially attractive creations."

Then I observed that venues that do value the cake over the frosting are fewer and harder to find, but mentioned Quilt National as one that does focus on the art.

great color, mediocre design

A few people commented that this was a bad analogy.

Kathy wrote:  "But these particular venues don't claim to be art, do they?  This is just what they do and they appeal to a large segment of the population.  I don't think there is anything wrong at all with what they do.  It's just not what I want to do."

Anonymous wrote:  "Comparing quilts at the state fair to ones accepted into QN is ridiculous.  They're not the same thing, nor does either side ever pretend to be."

They're both right.  I should have been more thoughtful in saying what I wanted to say.  I should have limited my examples to the "art quilt" world rather than venturing into the far-removed precincts of the State Fair.  So let me take the liberty of restating my case.  Even within the "art quilt" world, it's easier to find no-cake wonders than to find quilts with more rigorous art underpinnings.

Exhibit A: the International Quilt Festival in Cincinnati this spring, which I wrote about in a series of posts starting here. The people showing here aren't trying to impress the state fair quilt police; they're trying to make "art quilts."  But the work many of them are turning out has a whole lot more frosting than cake.  Glitter was everywhere, with metallics, ribbons, lamé, shiny tulle, beads, etc.

But not to single out this venue -- I challenge you to attend any show that focuses on art quilts, or has a category for art quilts, and walk up and down the aisles.  Compare the number of quilts that rely on loud colors and flashy embellishment to those with serious design and composition strength.  Be honest.

And while you're walking the aisles, go over into the vendor section and check out the products (heavy on embellishment and gimmicks) and the samples (flashy color always attracts attention).  Frosting apparently sells a heck of a lot better than cake.

Exhibit B:  magazines and TV shows focusing on "art quilts."  Read or watch several installments of your favorite such publication or show, and compare the number of articles written, spots aired or quilts pictured with more frosting to those with more cake.

Exhibit C:  do the same with the quilting books available in your local shop or online.  How many books teach you how to use design principles in developing your own artistic style?  How many simply teach you how to make a small quilt identical to the one in the book?  In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that the quilt publishing industry is united in its determination to put out only project or technique books.

Exhibit D: check out the classes and workshops offered at a large quilt show.  For example, the class catalog for Houston this fall will be available online in a week or so.  Don't pay attention to the stuff aimed at traditional quilters, just the classes advertised on the art end of the spectrum.  Count the number of classes focusing on frosting -- embellishment techniques, replication of the instructor's project, working with a particular tool -- and compare to those focusing on design, composition, color theory.  I suspect the breakdown will be approximately 100 to zero.  

nice color, mediocre design
Back to my original point: even within the smaller world of "art quilts" there's a huge concatenation of forces pushing frosting and not so many pushing cake.  No wonder it's hard for serious artists to escape the vast quicksand of frosting and find role models and venues that stress the art component of "art quilts."

Bottom line: those of us who want to make cake must work hard to find our fellow bakers. We have to learn to be more discerning, to tell the difference between cake and frosting.  We have to search out teachers, publications and venues that encourage and reward the hard work and rigorous standards of serious art.

There's nothing wrong with somebody making quilts heavy on flashy color and beads, and if somebody wants to buy one, I guess that's OK too, even though I wish the buying public had a higher level of taste.  But those of us who want to set our sights higher must first recognize that this is not all there is.


  1. I frequently read references to "strong design" but no explanation to what this is. I probably do not have the correct reference books, but I do not even know what to look for. I know this is a very complex topic, and condensing into a blog is unrealistic -- but I sure would like some direction. Color, focus point, symmetry, asymmetry?

  2. Irene: I wrote about this subject in my June 12 post.

    Many basic design texts are available in the library or online, but the short answer is to read a lot about art and think a lot about art. You have to flex your seeing/thinking muscles with a lot of practice.

  3. I am putting together a class for our local guild on the basics of design in landscape. This will be a beginner class. I am not sure how many will be interested, but I know that some are. I like all the frosting. I like bright color. But I agree that the bones start on design.

  4. Feel like a salmon swimming upstream? I can answer your questions about the books and videos and magazines claiming to be for art quilters in spite of selling them patterns and stitch-by-the-numbers classes- basically the glitz sells, the short-cuts, the quick way to get there! I taught for years all over the country giving what diluted down to a basic 7th grade art class teaching the elements of art as seen through fabric. It was a fun well-researched class designed to give people the tools to make art, but couldn't hold a candle to a technique class going on next door! Not many people want the cake when there is a tub of frosting to dip into! Keep up the good fight, you have back-up!

  5. Please give Visions in San Diego some credit. Those people are trying hard to keep the show going. They have been using jurors from the art world for a long time.

  6. Stevii - you're absolutely right -- Visions is right up there with QN in terms of high artistic standards.

  7. Cake?? still too much sugar! How about some interesting, sustaining bread...?

  8. Margaret -- I tend to agree with you, but what can you do when you want to build on a catchy remark by somebody else?

    and why stop at bread -- how about some nice nutritious sweet potato?

    maybe it's appropriate that this post is titled "bad analogies..."

  9. Kathy, I agree entirely. For many years now I have viewed the art quilt movement as separated into two camps: Those who arrived via the quilting field and those who arrived via the art field. For the most part, the art quilters who arrived via the quilt field are still fixated on the frosting and fancy techniques, whereas the art quilters who arrived via the art field are making art based on their foundation of fine art education and/or experience. Although I arrived at art quilting from the quilting camp, my involvement with other artistic mediums and my life-long observation and appreciation of the principles and elements of design in art and of art history, made me realize early on that I must concentrate on design principles and eschew the fancy 'frosting' if I was to make a serious artistic statement and body of work that can compete in the larger world outside of quilt shows, local, regional or international. Thanks for bringing this topic to the fore. And let's go to the last two or three Quilt National and Visions exhibits and count the number of works with bead, angelina, foil, and glitter. They are in the minority. (Mia Culpa: Actually, one of them would be my OH SAY CAN YOU CELL where I used silver duct tape, the backs of fake jewels and sequins, but I used them to make a statement within a defined context, not just for the sake of unnecessary decoration.) Stay tuned, I need to take another look at my QN and Visions catalogs anyway....Debbie Bein

  10. Bravo. Another inspirational post. All that glitters is not gold. I never tire of hearing your uncensored opinions.

  11. Hi Kathy. Glad to see you are doing ok. I stumbled upon your blog while searching for some art quilt inspiration.

    I understand what you were saying much better now. Comparing the fair to an art contest confused me.

    For 35 years I've promoted the art of stitching quilt layers together. This is an often over looked part of art quilts. I see art quilts with what I think is great design or great color choices but poorly thought out stitching designs. The stitching doesn't compliment or become part of the design but rather fights with it for attention of the viewer.

    Of course I'm not an artist and have no background in art. I'm still an artist wannabe. My eyes focus on what I know the most about when I look at an art quilt. That would be the stitching.

    But, doesn't every viewer do the same thing? Focus on what they are expecting to see or know the most about? For example, someone with a strong understanding of design. Don't they focus on the design of a piece while someone else focuses on color and still another focus on technique? Wouldn't this also apply to judges? Wouldn't this also apply to the artist when a piece is made? The artist focus on what is their strongest talent?

    Sorry Kathy, I'm simply trying to understand and learn by asking more questions.

    Kathy, what's wrong with the quilt examples you showed? I see nothing wrong with them and want to understand what you see that I don't. I know what I would do to them but what will you do?