Friday, February 11, 2011

Labels, good or bad?

Last night my textile art group had its executive committee meeting and we were talking about our new website, which is nearing completion.  We've got all the public pages up, and now it's time for members to put up their own gallery pages (five images, short bio and/or statement, and links).  The question for discussion: did we have the correct labels for people to categorize their work and viewers to click on to see it?  We had embroidery, quilting, felt-making, etc. etc. etc.

Then I had one of those klong moments in which I had to contemplate putting the label "quilting" on my work for the world to see.  Didn't make me happy.  Especially in light of Jane Dunnewold's recent remarks about the "textile ghetto," I have been thinking about how we artists who work in fiber and textiles so often shoot ourselves in the foot.  Not bad enough that we are branded as residents of the textile ghetto, but now we have to specify what street we live on in that ghetto?

The other people in the room unanimously disagreed.  They thought that when people visit the site, many will naturally want to check out who does the kind of work they're familiar with.  So weavers will first click on the "weaving" category and look at those gallery pages, and maybe if they're sufficiently intrigued and have a few minutes to spare, they'll look at something else before leaving the site. 

I guess that's a valid hypothesis, and I admitted defeat, but I'm still not happy.  Spent some midnight hours lying in bed thinking about this, trying to articulate why.  No answers, but a lot of questions.

Are we trying too hard to be user-friendly to other textile artists and aficionadas, and in so doing clouding our image for art lovers, curators, collectors and others who don't need categories? 

By using labels do we encourage our members to stay on their street rather than explore other techniques, even -- gasp -- non-fiber materials and approaches?

How many categories are too many?  Aggregating knitting and crochet, or collage and assemblage seems obvious, but does dollmaking deserve its own category?  What if somebody joins who loves tatting or spinning -- will we make a new category? 

If I don't label my work as quilting, what will I label it as?  Will I shoot myself in the foot if I don't use any label at all?

Am I being too elitist about this whole issue?  Are most textile makers perfectly happy to be known as weavers or quilters?  Maybe only those of us with too much time on our hands and too many pretensions in our heads can fret about whether and how we fit into The Art World.

Is this all a ridiculous conversation with myself?  Should my midnight angst about how I portray myself as an artist just stay there in the bedroom and not waste the time of a regional textile art group?

What do you think?  As it happens, I'm on the website committee and we're not meeting again for a week.  If anybody has any useful thoughts, I'll share them!


  1. Good discussion, somewhat like the age-old debate of art vs craft, with no real answer, just ideas and discussion. As I finished reading your post I looked back at what you called your group, a textile art group so therefore everyone's work is already defined as art so I'd suggest just three categories: 2-D (or wall art), 3-D (such as dolls and other sculpture) and functional (such as clothing, table runners).

  2. I don't know if I have any useful comments especially in regards to the group but rather I want to point you to a gallery website. I just presented a profile of an artist, Elisa D'Arriog at http://studio24-7.blogspot com/ Her gallery is Elizabeth Harris Gallery :

    If you visit that site and go to the page with artists and look at the work you will see that there are a variety of types of work presented but everyone is presented under one heading....artists.

  3. Kathy--
    I've struggled with this, too. When I curated a show for the local art museum, I deliberately chose to label the pieces QUILTS. This is because I'm a stubborn bugger, and I want everyone to know that a quilt isn't necessarily a bedcover.
    A few years ago at a national quilt show in Canada, I overheard a woman's comments as she stood in front of an "art" quilt: "That's not a quilt, it's art!" And she was not happy about it, either. . .

  4. Hi Kathy, I vote with you on this one. An artist friend once said, "Categories cause hardening of the art". Your point,

    By using labels do we encourage our members to stay on their street rather than explore other techniques, even -- gasp -- non-fiber materials and approaches?

    is exactly on target, IMO. Categories build walls, contain work, and limit IDEAS, and CREATIVITY. They create rules and problems for where to put work that is not exactly an embroidery, or precisely a quilt, or uses paint and hand made paper in with fabric and thread.

    Another problem you didn't mention is the assumptions people have when they hear the names of the categories. Quilts have a lot of assumptions, so does weaving, embroidery. When these techniques are used to create art, they step away from the traditions that are known to many, and move in a unique, original direction; to be art.

    Too many creators get stuck in following the rules for their craft, rather than challenging themselves to ask, "What if...." and have the courage to cross the boundaries of a quilt, an embroidery, a weaving, and create something that is unique.

    You said, "Are we trying too hard to be user-friendly to other textile artists and aficionadas, and in so doing clouding our image for art lovers, curators, collectors and others who don't need categories?"

    Yes, you are. Recently, I had the experience of an art aficionado look at "Balance I" (my web site, and in Portfolio 17), and state, "How Mondrian! Yet, I think it's fabric." It pleased me that she saw the ART first, then the techniques.

    My suggestion would be to title your page using your name, Art by Kathy Loomis.

  5. One more point, then I'll get off the soap box. If you, and other fiber artists, present one's work as a weaving, a quilt, an embroidery, aren't you misleading the viewer? Many people, non-artists in particular, have an assumption about what they might see if they want to look at a certain category. You may disappoint the viewer, who wants something more traditional. You are doing something unique, using techniques from a particular craft, and perhaps some techniques or materials from another. It's a disservice to the viewer to mislead him or her. Putting your art into a category is a mistake, IMO.

  6. (If I correctly posted my first attempt at comment, please delete this...) Labelling confines. The best way is to keep as far away from labelling as possible. If the group is defined as 'fiber art' the best way would be to present the members with their names only. Let visitors to the site be curious and find out for themselves what the members do, and what the visitors then want to call the members' products - art, or quilt, or weaving, or whatever.