Monday, September 28, 2015

The Mending Project 9

I promise this will be the last time I write about The Mending Project.  Faithful readers will recall that I've been dithering since Day 1 about whether it was worthwhile, not to mention about whether it was art.  I mentioned the other day that the concept of art being the making of objects is a definition way too restrictive for the postmodernists, and that includes a lot of museum directors and curators.

That's why you'll see museums all over the place, not just here, trying to become places for encounters. While I was on duty mending, I observed a poetry slam as well as three different "family fun" days on which special activities were offered.  Our museum has converted a bunch of prime real estate into a "maker space" where kids can make stuff.  (Oh wait, making stuff is so nonpostmodern.... I guess it's OK for kids, if not for artists.)

The curators of our show say they were thrilled at all the conversations between menders and visitors, and think they might want to do something similar in the future.

That's all fine, and I guess any society benefits when strangers are able to have pleasant conversations with one another.  But is this supposed to happen in a museum as opposed to a church, library or community center?  A big part of me thinks that facilitation of conversation is too trivial, too universal, to undifferentiated, too generic to warrant rewriting the mission of a museum.  There should be some qualitative difference between being a volunteer at a museum and being a volunteer at a nursing home, for instance.

I enjoy and take pride in the various occasions where I can spend some pleasant time with a stranger, especially if the conversation can go beyond the most superficial level.  But I don't call it art.  I am a maker, always have been, always will be as long as I can hold a needle or a paintbrush or a scissors or a glue gun.  When I can't make things I don't think I qualify as an artist.

It's oh so trendy for the hipsters and the critics and the curators to call it art when "artists" hang out with other people or invite some people over for dinner or set out paper for people to write letters on or tell the museum guards to shout out headlines from the newspaper.  I'm usually pretty open to offbeat and weird things being defined as art, but my tolerance stops before this point.

So my bottom line on The Mending Project is that first, the installation -- the beautiful walls of thread and the (small) piles of mended garments -- is probably art.  It belongs in a museum; it was nice to look at.  Maybe not the strongest work you'll ever see in a museum, but I've seen worse.

OK, this is art

Second, when the menders stitched onto garments, either the ones that got piled on the table or the ones that were worn out the door, it might or might not be art.  Even though I would not define it as art when I mend my son's shorts, I guess I'll give our production a grudging pass, because it was done while sitting in the real-art installation.

maybe art, if you're feeling charitable

definitely not art

Third, having nice conversations with people is not art, even if it's done while sitting in the real-art installation.

By these definitions, of the 30 hours I spent on duty in the museum, I was probably making art for less than 10, and most of them were spent on things that I had brought in myself, unrelated to mending.  The project did prompt me to do a lot of serious thinking and questioning about what is art and what I think is valid for me do do as an artist.  But on balance I think the project stacks up as a waste of my time, not to mention a wasted opportunity for the museum in general.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.  What do you think?  Was I nuts to spend so much of my summer on this project?


  1. I agree with your comments, and the point made at the end of post 7 about the 'neccessity' for the expensive international artist.
    In order to challenge the view that these type of encounters are meaningfull and lasting art you need to be seen to be willing to engage with and consider the the concept with an open mind which you have done. Hopefully your feedback will be taken on board by the curators and will affect what is exhibited in the future. So no you didn't waste your time on the project this summer

  2. i like your reflective writing on this project. I would come to the same conclusion as you have.

  3. i agree it is not art perhaps there needed to be a focus or the word mending with more definition. pluncking something down and expecting art not going to work

  4. I often thought of the Japanese art form-wabi sabi when you were writing about the mending project. It would have been nice to have a stack of Goodwill or donated items to mend when there was no participation.

    I think museums are trying very hard to entice people (more of them) into the museum with these programs, and the hide and seek games and the make a masterpiece art games etc they promote for family nights.

    Does it work? Don't know. I am seeing more and more "installations" that are more recycling than art.

  5. I agree with you 100%. If someone set up a mending station at a church or community center the museum organizers would turn up their noses at it. It's only art because it's happening at a museum and has a famous (but absent) name attached. As for the conversation, I expect that the conversation would be more open and honest in a community center setting. The museum puts such an aura of expectation around it that I think it probably makes the participants to act unnaturally.
    I'll be even more bold. I think museums are getting lazy and crazy. It's a lot of work to put together a meaningful exhibit and to put together the surrounding events that will attract the public to attend and participate. It's easy to put together "the mending project" and call it art. They are removing the skill and talent from the art and from the museum as an organization. That will be costly in the long run.

  6. I am not sure that I will call the process "art." I just want to add that I have appreciated your thoughtful comments as they have caused me to think about process and outcome. Thank you.

  7. I agree with you all the way. But I would like to speak to the idea that the museums are doing this for completely off the wall and crazy - even lazy - ideas. The museums I have worked with are getting funding cuts every time they breathe/turn around. In order to garner a better chance at funding, they need to be seen to be Educating and Working with the community. Thus the taking up of valuable real estate for a making place...partially to keep the real art from getting glitter on it! And also the attempts to do what may seem like conversations which could be held in a community centre. So, some do better at coming up with ideas that work, but for some it is also just about ticking a box. Perhaps they need to have someone to investigate how well the activity succeeded, not just that they did one.

    Do American museums have the same sort of funding issues? and people who think they know but are not museum trained making the policies about what does and does not need to happen in a museum?

    1. Sandy -- of course American museums need money, but it's almost all raised privately. So you don't need to convince some bureaucrat that you are doing good things, you have to convince rich people.

      As far as I can tell, at least in our town, most of the people making the big decisions about museum programming are trained curators and art historians, so they should know what they're doing.

    2. Trained curators and art historians making decisions doesn't necessarily mean that these will work well. ONe factor certainly is the degree of PR work that went into it - how much advertising? Certainly discussion rounds or something like that might have helped to publicize what's happening there. And the set-up without the artist ever being there is poor. I think it is great that you spent time with this, also because we got to read your thoughts about it, and it will help us straighten out out thoughts about what kind of art we are making or being involved in, as it did for you. But as a whole - to me the project seems rather mediocre in its entirety, even if it could have had a much greater impact.

  8. As you reported it in your blog posts, I was not impressed with the project as a whole. Might have been different if the museum had managed true interaction between museum goers and the menders, people actually making the museum the destination to "see" this and be a part of it. But even then, I'd not call it art. I'd call it demo days like when quilters sit around at quilt shows doing their handwork and answering questions, or gathering in public on National Quilt Day to do the same as an educational thing. Yes, I think you, no wait, they wasted your time.

  9. I really think calling the project "art"is a stretch by any imagination. I hate when museums try so hard to be edgy.
    Was it male initiated? Probably! Just because something is done in a museum does not make it art. Museums would be more successful if they focused on real art. I appreciate your summation.

  10. I must say as I scroll backwards through your postings I am enjoying reading your take on varied subjects and love how your writing entices conversation from readers.