Much discussion in quilt/art circles recently regarding two prizewinning quilts at the big Houston show this year.
Virginia Greaves, Worry, 2014
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936
You probably recognize the image as the famous photo taken in California by Dorothea Lange, documenting the travails of migrant workers during the drought of the Dust Bowl. That photo was black and white, while Greaves has imagined it in color and executed it in machine applique.
On the Quiltart email list, typical for listserv discussions, the focus started on a nitpick: was it a copyright violation to appropriate the Lange image. (Apparently it's in the public domain, since Lange was working for the U.S. government.) But it quickly moved to a discussion of whether it's a Good Thing to copy somebody else's photo(or even your own photo) to make your own artwork.
Somebody pointed out another big winner at Houston, ironically in the category of "innovative artistry," which was a replica of a painting.
When this quilt was first discussed on the list, one commenter put the subject to rest by suggesting that the show entry form should require that the artist has gotten permission to use any text or imagery. This strikes me as a solution to the wrong problem. Among other things, it would forever rule out quotations from the Bible or Shakespeare, not to mention remixes of Vermeer or Picasso. And I think the point is not whether you have somebody's permission to work from their original, but whether you should.
So is it a Good Thing to copy somebody else's photo or painting? And then is it a Good Thing to enter it as your own work in a big show?
One Quiltart reader said "to present it as a faithful reproduction but in fabric is a form of cheating. In my opinion there is little difference in this than using a commercial pattern. This is not the same as inspiration. I can download most any image from the net and with Photoshop turn it into a pattern of any size." Similarly, a bunch of art quilters with whom I shared a meal the weekend the Houston winners were announced thought that Photoshop-enabled translation of photos into quilts was nothing more than "paint by numbers."
But other readers defended the practice. One wrote: "I liken rendering a photograph in a different medium (such as fiber) no different than a singer covering a brilliant old song. Even if the rhythm and lyrics are the same, even if the very same instruments and arrangements are used, it's a new artistic work. It's an homage to the original."
One wrote: "So what if these quilters use photographs taken by others? Have you honestly tried to render an image in fabric? It takes an artist's eye to translate the spirit of the photo into another medium."
Someone else wrote: "Ginny Greaves' quilt based on the Lange photograph seems to me to be in the tradition of artists who are influenced and inspired by other artists' works. Translating a photograph into an entirely different medium, such as fabric, seems sufficiently different to make it unique."
But another reader wrote: "Simply interpreting it in the fabric medium doesn't really bring anything new to it. They don't sing with a distinctive style of the quilt artist. They are just copies. And I simply do not understand making art, copied from someone else's photo, that you wish to look just like the original! That story has been told!"
Another: "Copying a photo slavishly is NOT a particularly creative endeavor, especially when the goal is to make it exactly like someone else's original. In the case of fabric medium, it is a very clever and dedicated workmanship issue to get it perfect. But NOT a personal expression of a creative fiber artist."
Which leads to a final question, is it a Good Thing for the judges to give a big prize to a quilt that reproduces somebody else's image? Arguably the Houston judges didn't know that Landi and Azara's quilt was so closely based on a painting, although the signage says "original design inspired by a painting by Anna Bocek." But the judges would have had to have lived all their lives in an aluminum-foil-lined box to not recognize the Migrant Mother as a copy of Dorothea Lange's famous photo.
Someone else: "How can fiber art ever be taken seriously if blatant copy work is what is rewarded at our top shows?" Another responded: "We often gripe about quilts not being taken seriously as an art medium and being excluded from 'art' shows, and this is one of the reasons why. It's not just about copyright and legalities, and it's not just about quilt show rules -- even though both of those things matter. It's about raising the conceptual and emotional level of the work itself and pushing past the quilt world's emphasis on a certain type of technique."
Another: "I was shocked... that these quilts... were even accepted. In my opinion, composition is one of the most important parts that make a successful work of art. When an image is copied exactly, you are using the original artist's composing ability."
Somebody else: "Art quilts should be original work that comes from the mind of the creator. Variations of things where the artist has incorporated her own interpretation would be acceptable as long as... you can actually see the artist's fancy has taken some flight. An exact replication, regardless of how it is technically achieved should not be part of the art quilt vocabulary. I am not a fan of most things from photos. I can understand using a photo as a jumping off point but where is the vision, creative spirit, and color sense in copying something in front of you?"
Another wrote: "I find it embarrassing for the artist to simply lift the image -- verbatim so to speak -- and present it in a major show.... What were the judges thinking? ... I know some may think I'm an art snob... but we can't have it both ways. Is artquilting an artform or a nice hobby?"
The opposing viewpoint: "All I'm saying is, if it transports out of your daily grind, it if challenges you creatively, who are we to judge the arty-ness of a piece?"
The response: "The jurors SHOULD be judging the "arty-ness" of the piece. This is important to those of us committed to making ART from fabric... Yet the big awards are still going to copies and Hallmark card compositions as long as they are brilliantly constructed."
What do you think?
Check out the whole roster of Houston winners here.
This is cross-posted to Ragged Cloth Cafe, a blog about art.