There is a tired old discussion that still seems to raise its hoary head amongst those who have nothing better to talk about: whether certain media (or mediums as they say now, which always makes me think of spiritualists – and I don’t know about you but there’s no way I’m making something out of slime!! (as in ectoplasm!)). (Sorry! My knight’s move thinking got the better of me again!) These hoary heads argue whether certain media should be considered “art” or “craft”. For those of us striving to make the best work we can, to communicate our ideas as clearly and richly as possibly in the medium, we know that what we’re doing is both art and craft. We’re making original work as artistically as possible and with the best craftsmanship we can. It should be both!
I was listening to a talk by Bruce Hoffman the other day where he appeared to draw a line between “fine” art and “decorative” art which I think makes a start in placing art quilts, but it’s not the whole story. I remember being in a discussion lead by New York critic Janet Koplos – she was asked why art quilts just weren’t accepted by the galleries in New York. She replied by observing that while many art quilters might feel they were unfairly excluded from the mainstream of contemporary art, whether or not they did work that would be accepted depended on what their objectives were. That the art work currently desired by the NYC art world had very different objectives – at present being concerned with art whose main goal is surprise, things turned around, made from unlikely materials, even shocking, startling, different. These are not the objectives of your average art quilter! It’s not that one type of reason for making art is good or better than another – it’s just different.
I like the categorization system (if one is needed – and as human beings we do like to group and predict) outlined by Feldman (I’m sorry I can’t find a url for him). It is more detailed but less hierarchical than the old court case of Art v. Craft which implies a winner and a loser. He described 8 different kinds of designed work: in alphabetical order:
Abstract: some designs are “abstracted” from reality. This can be completely – bearing no relation to reality whatsoever – and that’s probably very rare. More likely there has been some initial visual reference. The work of Ricardo Mazal demonstrates this clearly: he took a photograph of a few branches, then gradually simplified and simplified the image, cropping in closely, dropping out natural references to the point where the image becomes unrecognizable and finally making a monoprint based on the simplified photograph: The book about his work: From Abstraction to Reality is listed on Amazon.
Conceptual: where it is the idea or concept that is conveyed that is the most important – over and above any concerns about beauty, craftsmanship, particular medium etc.
A good example would be the 2004 exhibit 552 Georgians: A Memorial, created by John English. This was an installation of 552 individual hanging nooses representing Georgians lynched between 1880 and 1930 accompanied by an audio track listing their names.
“While a single noose has long been a symbol of terrorism, this assemblage of 552 takes on iconic status,” said English. “Only by acknowledging the grim reality of our collective history can we continue the process of healing and reconciliation between the races.”
decorative: formal design where the elements (line, shape, value, color, texture) are arranged creatively.
Descriptive or realistic: documenting one’s visual world
emotive: to evoke a mood (Picasso’s Guernica painting of horror and outrage)
narrative: to tell a story, send a message (e.g. Cave paintings – the hunt, religious paintings, the wonderful tapestries in the Cloisters museum in NYC).
utilitarian: a practical function, like the design of a computer or salt and pepper pots
Surrealistic: Salvador Dali and many others.
Obviously there is overlap between these types of design – they are not true categories in the sense that they exclude the other types…but I think it’s helpful to consider what you’re trying to do at the outset, and which type of communication is most important.
The success of the design lies in how well it achieves its objectives.
And, as for me?
My reasons for making work vary: In my quilt City of Mists, I definitely wanted to evoke that soft melancholy, tender mood that has a whisper of hope that you feel on one of those flat misty days – literally feel!
In many pieces my aim is a combination of descriptive, decorative and conceptual in that I am describing what I see, in a creative formal arrangement of elements with, at the same time, a specific formal message implied. This is especially true in the latest Industrial Landscape series. My foremost aim is to make work that anyone would want to look at for a long time in their home, office, or waiting room; work that is both simple and complex, elegant and earthy, intelligent, meaningful and easy to understand. Phew!!!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!