Monday, November 24, 2014

Perfect copies -- but are they art?

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.

Maria Landi and Maria Lucia Azara, Summer Wind

Anna Bocek, La Playa series

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.

One of the Quiltart readers wrote: "at the risk of sounding testy, what about the word "Original" do the judges and jurors not understand?"

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.


  1. Good discussion. The fact that these two quilts were selected for awards tells me that the Houston exhibition appears to be judged on technique rather than content. Should Greaves have faithfully reproduced the Lange photo and entered it? Probably not. The original photo holds a loaded message, and if she knew that the woman in the photo never wanted her image used as an icon for the plight of migrant workers, she might not have chosen to enter the piece. While making it because it presented a personal quilt-making challenge is completely acceptable, I think she might have used more discretion in entering the piece. Should she have executed the quilt? Sure. Alternatively, if she wanted to visually represent an idea about our culture to express something she herself wants us to realized and somehow include the image or a reference to the image, then that might be judge worthy in a fine art exhibition. There are plenty of artist/activists who use their artwork to evoke discussion or expose problems in the world. And some of those artists include iconic images from other artists to present their case. An easy example is Warhol’s Soup can pieces. He was making a comment about culture and mass consumption. Warhol has borrowed ironic pop culture iconography to express how by having eaten this soup every day for 20 years, his own life as dominated himself.

    I think the question here is why does the Houston show call it a quilt art show?

  2. Opps, should have proof read before I hit enter. * the sentence should be Warhol has borrowed pop culture iconography to express how by having eaten this soup every day for 20 years, his own life as dominated himself.

  3. The problem lies with the judges. If you want to compete with artists in other media, then you need to choose judges from the "aht" world. That doesn't usually happen at quilt shows, and when it does, you get a lot of indignant quilters.

  4. It is fine to copy someone else's photo or painting; in painting - which is what i do - it is a traditional way to learn. naturally, you would not ever describe it as your own work. Usually, you would give it the same title as the original and then say "after [name of artist]". In painting competitions, entries like those you highlight here from Houston would simply not be permitted.

  5. I haven't joined in on this in Quilt Art. But something that bothers me a bit is the presumption that everyone everywhere has seen the original.
    "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. "
    "But the judges would have had to have lived all their lives in an aluminium-foil-lined box to not recognize the Migrant Mother as a copy of Dorothea Lange's famous photo."

    I had never seen this image until I followed a link on the discussion. And I realise you didn't say the aluminium-foil-lined box statement, but I have never lived in one of those either! ;-)

    So, it could be likely that at least one of these judges had never seen it, but probably unlikely that 3 (or how many they use) had not seen it.
    Sandy in the UK

    1. Sandy -- I should have qualified that statement to say that people in the US would recognize the image. I'm sure there are iconic photos in the UK that would not be immediately recognizable on this side of the Atlantic. I am unable to find out who juried or judged the Houston show -- am I remembering right that this information is not public? -- but I would hope that at least one of them would have recognized the photo.

  6. The judges chose wrong. Their focus is technique rather than message. Doing master copies is a way to learn not a way to express a unique thought. It may be that the judges at major quilt shows will need to be more circumspect in the future when judging art quilts. Or perhaps they need to exclude the category. These copies do not qualify as art quilts because they bring nothing new to the subject. What is unique about them? What is the artist trying to say?
    I don't think this type of work will go away anytime soon. I groan every time I see a hallmark-card quilt in an art quilt show. It just perpetuates the idea that art quilters don’t have a strong voice or can’t see beyond the pretty and trite. The quilt world is fascinated by the ability to reproduce images in cloth regardless of the definition of art. My question to the artists who are trying to copy photographic images is why did you choose this medium? What new perspective or voice are you bringing to the images?

  7. I am really intrigued by this discussion. I am finding my way into art quilting, because I'm at a time in my life where I actually have time for it (kids grown, retirement near). I can see the appeal (for a quilter, that is) of reproducing another image (my own, not someone else's) and I've done a couple of pieces that attempted to re-render photographs I have taken. I would never think of trying to make a quilt using someone else's image. To me that seems very odd. And I would not think of submitting a re-rendered photo (anyone's) to an "art quilt" competition. That seems very odd to me.

    So maybe the problem is art quilt shows that do not make these distinctions? There is certainly a technical merit to re-creating a likeness of a photograph or painting in textile medium, but it's technical, not artistic.

    I have been using photos (mine only) as springboards for working on my technical skills. But is it art?

  8. I’ve been stewing in disgust for several hours here and now I need to say something. Quilters, if you want to be taken seriously as “artists,” if you can’t understand why your work is getting passed up in juried shows in major galleries and museums, if you are left whining about the unfairness of it all, well, this is why: you aren’t mining your own history and you aren’t exploring the WHY of your own work. Artists do this. If Virginia Greaves has a need to explore the plight of the migrant worker, awesome! But WHY? And why use textiles, and what textiles, specifically? How does she, as an artist, make the choices that ensure she is an intricate part of the process and not just an enlarger/photocopier? Get out and photograph your own migrant worker and infuse your work with their misery if you have the need to try and understand it through reproduction and process (but before you run out and do this, ask yourself if you are one of many throughout history who has benefited from the misfortune of a minority group. I’m talking about cultural misappropriation here, specifically, and it’s often more applicable than you may realize). I’m sure this fabric piece is attractive and technically rendered in real life…but it pales next to Lange’s original photograph, which is so voyeuristic and weighty…it is the photographer’s and the writer’s inner conflict to wrestle with what is theirs to take. And you see it in the photograph…I can’t tell you how, but the mark is there, the exchange is there. I am sad that Virginia Greaves has to cope with all of this backlash…she should be happy, damn it, she won a big prize! But now we enter the realm of sour grapes. So frankly, I don’t blame her. I blame the judges and I blame the committee that chose the judges. They are holding this genre back by saying work of this type is 1.) allowable and 2.) prizewinning. What a shame all around.

    1. Totally agree. I came to quilting from a background of teaching art. I preached original expression for years & years.

  9. Last year's Best of Show from Houston was a rendering from the artist's personal photograph. It was an image of the Chihuly exhibit at the Dallas Arboretum. Thoughts?

    1. Well, I took what are probably very similar photos this year at Denver Botanic Gardens ;-) as his forms are gorgeous and were totally irresistible, and it was fascinating to see them in amongst the plants. There is no way I would ever dream of using one of them as a plan for a quilt, though. Given that I already cut and piece very organic shapes in my Ebb&Flow series, it is possible that one day someone might say "Her work reminds me of Dale Chihuly's glass sculptures I saw at the DBG" which might be meant to be flattering but I would find it mortifying as having no wish at all to have my name tagged to that of a famous artist. A pet peeve of mine is the artist who titles a work something like "With Homage to Very Famous Artist"

  10. Paint by numbers is not art, no matter how well executed. To give it a prize, for originality no less, ought to be embarrassing for the judges. Art should SAY something. And that something should not be, "I can copy someone else's art really well."

    I just googled last year's best of show. It appears the judges like technically excellent, artistically uninspired work. Which is fine as long as they bill the show that way. It surprises me that the winner used to be in graphic design. Seems like someone who worked in that field would want to put their own stamp on their work and take it beyond what anybody with Photoshop, fabric and a gluestick could do.

  11. Looking at the prize winners I was struck by how many bad designs or just blah designs there were. I would imagine all of the pieces are beautifully made, but art? I don't think so. Everyone could benefit from a thorough study of design and value placement in the art world.

  12. This does seem to be a conundrum, particularly since the definition of "original" (copied here directly from the Quilts, Inc list of entries rules) is as follows: "Original A work composed firsthand–a fresh design or style. A creation produced requiring thought, without replicating the works of others." This would suggest that Lange's quilt is a replication of a photograph and, therefore, ineligible. Given that wasn't the case, I'm wondering if Quilts, Inc. is limiting their view to replicating other quilts, not all media.

  13. The whole Quilt Industry - books, classes, patterns, magazines, dvds, fabrics, notions, online discussion groups and more - is focused on excellence of technique in quilt making. The 'art quilt world' includes a high percentage of practitioners, aspirants and admirers who began making quilted textiles in that millieu where technical excellence is prized above all. Houston is perhaps THE show where traditionally some of the most outstanding quilts from around the world are shown - being accepted to hang in Houston is prestigious in that world, and winning an award a pinnacle of achievement. Fantastic for those who choose that path, but why would we be surprised at any of the prizewinners? I suggest that anyone who considers what they do is serious 'art' really should avoid quilt shows with 'art quilt' categories and be working for acceptance in other directions. A hard path to follow though, given that many artists also depend on the Quilt Industry especially teaching and publishing, which in turn depend on earning a high public profile through being seen at places like Houston ....

  14. The Nancy Prince prizewinning quilt is also slavishly copied. Nancy uses someone's PAINTINGS to make her quilts. Yes she has permission but these are not "her" images either.

  15. Wow, I'd followed the discussion on QuiltArt with some interest and knew these were copies. But seeing the two quilts right next to the original is pretty shocking. It's obvious the original artists' work was much better and should have been left alone. The copies are but pale imitations that add nothing new.

  16. Let's keep things in perspective here and remember that IQF in Houston is a QUILT show, NOT an art show, and they play by quilt show rules. That means technique is valued over creativity. If you don't think what they choose is art, then use your feet to protest and don't enter, don't attend and don't waste your time discussing it. Put your work in real art venues and see how it stacks up against real art, not quilts.

    1. You're right, of course about it being primarily a quilt show, but it has categories that are called "art" -- the two quilts I wrote about won in the "innovative artistry" and "art -- people, portraits and figures" categories.

      Yes, we can use our feet to protest these decisions, but we can also use our mouths, which is what all those people whom I quoted were doing on the Quiltart list, and what all those people who are commenting on this blog are doing. At least when you protest with your mouth, the sponsors know what they have to do to get back in your good graces, unlike when you protest with your feet.

  17. Most quilt shows do judge on techniques rather than artistry even in the art quilt categories. It is absolutely the fault of the judges who have no training to judge art.

  18. But what about kit/patterns? The Honorable Mention in Mixed Techniques this year was a pattern (possibly even the kit with fabrics ) by Australian Designer Wendy Williams who I know was at Houston this year. Maybe they think because it is not a US designer no one will know.

  19. I am curious about this too. I work a lot on portraits. Though I do use a method that I developed by myself that made it possible for me to make a portrait quilt in 2-3 days! I think from the 'technique' point of view my quilt is original. But like you say, it will, nevertheless, be a copy of the photo.
    Also, a lot of times, I click pictures to make into quilts myself. So, the composition - as a comment quotes above - is also mine. I usually plan and compose my pictures. So do they have a better chance to be called 'Art' rather than using pictures clicked by someone else?