Recently I acquired a pile of old magazines from a fiberart friend, The World of Embroidery, published in the UK, dating to the late 1990s. I love to read old magazines, especially ones that I didn't read the first time around, and I particularly love to binge on the reading, going immediately from one issue to the next. It bypasses the suspense of waiting a month for part 2 of a series, or for indignant reader response.
But there's a problem with inherited magazines -- sometimes the original owner has torn out pages. You'll be reading along about something fascinating and all of a sudden, it's over, before its time. So it was with disappointment that I got to read only the first page of an essay by Polly Leonard (now the founder/editor of Selvedge magazine) titled "Trends in textiles today." It appeared in the July 1998 issue.
Leonard points out that trends emanate primarily from art schools, and that such teaching has increasingly been "issues-based" rather than focusing on functional and physical qualities of fiber work. "Fine artists have adopted textiles and used them to communicate individual abstract ideas. Thus the conventions surrounding technique and the use of materials have been demolished and reconstructed," she writes.
In the 1960s, which Leonard pegs as the beginning of new interest in textiles, "there was a frenetic rush to explore the nature and potential of tactile material with very little critical appraisal. Now.... artists are no longer preoccupied with breaking the rules. Textile art must, like all art, be judged on its integrity rather than merely the current fashion of its subject matter or the novelty of its technique."
She wonders if "textile art" as a category should be obsolete, because much of it incorporates other mediums. "In these works, the use of textile materials, if any, if subservient to the idea; the role of the category has become ambiguous."
Then comes the zinger: "The policy of grouping work according to material does little to promote textile art outside the world of the enthusiast, and can serve to devalue it. Good art is art, and perhaps bad art is more acceptable when it is called textile art. Maybe then inadequacies can be camouflaged by technique."
That was at the bottom of the page, and I don't know what happened in the rest of the essay. But there's plenty of food for thought already.
First, we are reminded that the UK has had a far more robust system of textile art education than we have in the US. Whenever I read about the rigorous courses in the City & Guilds curriculum, or the (now-defunct) Julia Caprara School of Textile Art, I am envious. Although some artists outside the UK are able to take advantage of this training through distance learning, we in the US generally see fibers as a barely tolerated poor cousin in art schools.
Second, the move toward conceptual elements in textile art hasn't been as dramatic in the US as apparently it was in the UK. At least within the organized part of the textile art establishment, we're still largely still in the stage of exploring materials and techniques with little critical appraisal. Even the quilt and fiber shows at the art end of the spectrum, such as Quilt National and Fiberart International, seem to be in this stage (although I'm interested to see what these two blockbuster shows will have on display this summer).
We used to have some critical appraisal in Fiberarts magazine, but that bit the dust almost two years ago. Sometimes it appears in Surface Design Journal, the magazine of the Surface Design Association. But mostly there's no place to look for comment on the big exhibits, or retrospective shows for major artists. By contrast, these old Embroidery magazines have two or three reviews in every issue, and the writers have no problem pointing out weaknesses as well as strengths, an openness that would be difficult to match in US forums, where being nice is more important than exercising critical judgment.
Third, the reference to "the world of the enthusiast" perfectly sums up the ghetto, or perhaps I should say niche, that most textile art finds itself relegated to in the US. I am most familiar with the quilt niche so I will talk about that, but I suspect tapestry weavers or art knitters or other specialties could say the same about their own niches.
I follow the art quilt world closely, by visiting shows, reading books and catalogs, following blogs and belonging to organizations such as SAQA. I can recognize the work of dozens of artists without reading the captions, and notice what's new and what's good. There are many other artists who also follow this world, and there's nothing so satisfying as getting together with like minds, preferably at a show, for a good critique and gossip fest. But we do constitute a world of enthusiasts, and I agree with Leonard that the very smallness of our world serves to devalue our art.
One answer is that if we want to be taken seriously as artists we need to escape the niche and look for all-media shows. But I do love many aspects of that niche; it's been good to me, yielding a trip to Japan among other prizes and awards. I wish the niche could become less comfortable and more rigorous, more like the mainstream art world.