Bad news in the mail yesterday -- the summer issue of Fiberarts magazine came with its own death notice. The editor's note said, "...the support for Fiberarts has not been strong enough over the past several years to continue keeping it in circulation." So after 35 years, this was the last issue.
I'm not just talking about the articles, or the photos, or the fiber art news, or the listing of calls for entry. Those are great, and we'll miss them, but we can get these things from other sources. What I fear will not be replaced is critical writing about the art produced in this field.
Forgive me if I beat my favorite dead horse for a bit, but if we want to be taken seriously in the larger world of mainstream art instead of just the small pond of fiber art, we need more rigorous standards. Specifically, we need people who will apply public judgments to the work we produce -- not just by jurying work into shows and awarding prizes, but by pointing out work that does not achieve the best.
I like to read books and magazines about mainstream art, and I love the reviews. Those critics don't hesitate to comment when an artist has phoned it in, or has gotten stuck in a rut of doing the same work over and over again, or is doing derivative work, or has taken a step backward from previous levels of achievement, or hasn't yet mastered a new approach or concept. Even when these remarks are about somebody whose work I don't know very well, I learn something, and often am able to apply it to my own work.
It's like taking a workshop from a good teacher. Some students want to finish a specified project; success means skillfully replicating the pattern or prototype. What they want from the teacher is technical guidance and, at the end of the day, warm-and-fuzzies about how well they executed somebody else's idea. More advanced students may want to be challenged by assignments to do original work, and appreciate help from the teacher in developing their own designs. But the most serious students want criticism from the teacher; they want to be pushed to do better and that doesn't occur if the teacher provides only praise. That's what critical writing does, except in a more public arena. And only serious artists want and can take it.
Most of what you read in magazines devoted to fiber art or quilting is cheerleading, not criticism. Everybody's work is wonderful; everyone's work is ART. Every show is great. Every technique is worth learning. I've always seen a relationship between this sunny view of life and the fact that fiber art is an overwhelmingly female occupation. No matter how bitchy we might be when talking amongst ourselves, we have to be NICE in public.
Recently I inherited a huge pile of old magazines from an older artist friend, and have been enjoying reading them. I was impressed by the degree to which Surface Design, the publication of the Surface Design Association, used to support criticism. Not only did it run reviews of shows and individual artists' work, it gave an annual prize for critical writing in the arts. It even printed master's theses from MFA candidates in many mediums, not just fiber.
Sometimes I was put off by these articles; the writing was impenetrable, the concepts arcane and snobbish. But I was always impressed by the very fact of their being there. In the last few years, the magazine has largely abandoned this commitment to criticism. Arguably it's more reader-friendly now, especially with its better layout and production values that allow us to better see the art being discussed. But I do miss the criticism.
Fiberarts was never a tough critic, but it did print actual reviews that did occasionally make non-cheerleading observations. On occasion it printed unfavorable reviews and failed to stand behind its writers when the protests came in. But at least it did allow the idea of critical comment. It generally featured work that was substantive and worthwhile, not just flashy and easy. And it was intelligently written.
Fiberarts subscribers won't get refunds, but will receive Quilting Arts magazine instead for the duration of their subscriptions. I hope that this sudden influx of new readers with broader interests may nudge Quilting Arts toward the more serious end of the spectrum. QA has generally been a little too NICE for my taste, featuring ever-more-trivial projects, contests and "artworks" that too often are product- and technique-based rather than art-driven, but maybe it will change a bit for the better.
And maybe Surface Design and SAQA Journal will be encouraged to print tougher reviews now that they're the only games in town. Sure, mid-level artists won't want this kind of attention, but serious artists will. If SDA and SAQA really want to represent and serve the high end of the professional spectrum, they will step into the breach and provide the kind of criticism that the mainstream art world enjoys all the time.