Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The "What the Hell?" award.

I was reading an interesting book about jurying for piano competitions. The author felt that when you have three jurors together they tend to give the awards to the tried and true…not the person who’s doing some experimental work, pushing their ideas and their musician ship further, but rather the person who adheres to the currently accepted ideas of what is correct in piano playing.  Furthermore he felt that they tend to judge by things that are quantifiable: i.e. speed, accuracy of notes and tempi etc. 

It’s also clear that when new art (whether in music, or in painting or in fiber art) is first made public, it is frequently misunderstood, underestimated, ignored, disparaged (“my five year old could do that” – somebody actually said  to me that of a quilt design once!!), even condemned.  There is, it seems, a distance between fashionable norms (of any art form) and the artistic challenge.  Would the work of some of our most innovative and inspiring art quilters have even been accepted a few decades ago?

I know when I go to a quilt show, or look at a book of quilts, I see an Awful Lot of Predictable work…and very little that actually shows me something different.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this that relate to the quiltmaker, the publishers of magazines and books, the tendency for the market place to always dilute ideas so that the greatest number of people can understand and therefore BUY!   But also I wonder if the jurors aren’t to some extent to blame too.

Why are the winners so predictable?  I think that there is a tendency for the hierarchy within the quilting world to both represent and defend the prevailing aesthetic.  People say “oh it doesn’t matter who the jurors are” – I think they’re clearly wrong…and the more jurors you have, the more you will skew the results towards the present norm.  And the weirdoes and iconoclasts who might try some ideas that disturb the quilt world (remember all the furor about a skeleton quilt a few years ago?) face significant  prejudice.

 Furthermore, many of the jurors of the more traditional shows are “trained” to follow a specific standard.  Which seems totally bizarre!   If they are following a standard prescribed by some “authoritative body”, they are not even making their own judgments!  And so we continue to pursue the status quo.  The pianists go faster and faster, the quiltmakers make tinier and tinier stitches, or buy machines that make sure that their stitches are as machine like as possible!!

 Perhaps there could be a category for Different Quilts.  We’ve got landscapes and cityscapes and abstracts and florals and other nature themes, and now we have “modern” quilts, well what about “Different Quilts”?  Quilt that really challenge us, quilts that break the rules, and appear to develop their own rules.  Quilts that can’t be easily categorized, that are not very comfortable.  Quilts that might appear ugly at first sight, but then you remember them and have to go back and have another look.  Dystonic quilts, awkward quilts, odd quilts – but still having their own internal logic.

Can we get away from the Tame?  Will the jurors take some risks too – and stop worrying about fashionability, decorum, taste and general acceptability? 

Can we have more quiltmakers who will transfix us with their sheer force and uniqueness?  Yes there are a few out there – and I’d love for you to nominate them in the Comments!   I would definitely put people like Dorothy Caldwell into that category.

The Kiss of Death for any creative person should be that Awful “Viewers’ Choice” award – the award that goes to the most easily digestible pretty pap in the show!!  Instead let’s have a “What the Hell?!!” award!

Well I’m off to consider my WTH piece…with a nice cuppa tea of course!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!      Elizabeth

PS I just noticed that for some weird reason my blog of last week never got uploaded!!  So apologies - I'll put it up next week.   or maybe the week after I'll be traveling it will be good to have something "in the bag"!


irene macwilliam said...

Really brilliant piece of writing. I sadly do not have anyone to nominate.
I am not at all comfortable with the judging process and the training of judges.I am tired of seeing the same sort of pieces being selected, with people copying what others have succeeded with.
I do not see this happening in the art world.

Virginia Greaves said...

Definitely Kathy Nida. Her work is WTH worthy.

Christine Staver said...

Interesting blog, E.

I know that personally that I started out as a traditional quilter and even have a viewers choice award for my double wedding quilt that I hand quilted. It is a beautiful quilt, but not what I enjoy doing now. I think I got the award for my fabulous quilting. Yes I was one of those people that hand quilted very tiny stitches. It certainly was not an original design being a traditional pattern.

Back in those days I did not like art quilts at all. Now I find some traditional quilts kinda boring. But I still appreciate the work and creativity that goes into them. It is weird how your perspective changes.

I agree that original quilts need their own category. But I also find it interesting how many traditional quilters hate modern quilts and art quilts and how art quilters hate traditional quilts. I like all kinds of quilts like I like all kinds of music. One of the reasons that I don't belong to a quilt guild is that generally they are basically traditional quilters. I wish I could find a group of art quilters to belong to. I belong to some online groups, but they are mainly traditional quilters. I am the only one that does what I do. We had a challenge to finish a quilt one month and then we voted on our favorite. I was really proud of my art quilt. It got one vote and that was me voting for me. The one that won was a very simple, boring traditional quilt. Go figure! Just the same thing as you are saying about the judging at quilt shows. We need our own category!

The Idaho Beauty said...

Boy, there's so much here I question the validity of and one thing that I totally disagree with - your contention that viewer's choice award goes to the most easily digestible pretty pap. In my experience, VCA is usually more right on than the judges and I consider it a higher award. As with anything, that would not always be the case, but often I scratch my head at many 1st places and am relieved that the viewers have spoken a greater truth. We must not be viewing the same shows!

However, I think you are right about the predictability of much of the work in major shows being driven by the current class offerings, books and magazines regardless of the category. I have noticed the same thing happening in the "art" world - i.e. waxing and waning trends in photography, painting, mixed media. I don't think any discipline can escape this. If one is truly trying to do different work and wanting recognition, one must seek out the proper sympathetic venue, not demand that established shows change overnight. It took years for art quilts to make their way into traditional quilt shows, then get their own category in them and finally their very own exhibits. The true risk takers in the quilt world did not waste much if any of their time entering the type of show I think you are referring to. They got on with their work and found other more appropriate places to show it.

Nayasabrina said...

Let me play devil's advocate here.

1.) For most (traditional, established) quilt shows, there is judging , judging being to a set of given standards-- square, mitered, stitched down corners and the like--- for which awards are then given. I don't particularly care about such things (other than for the structural integrity of the work) so I don't enter judged shows and go to them only because of the many quilters I know who do.

The difficulty is asking and expecting(!) those trained to judge quilts to become artistic impressarios when there are "art" or "innovative" categories or entries in quilt shows. Kind of like asking a basketball ref to call a football game. They work by the rules they have learned and know, and those rules don't include evaluating artistic innovation, and certainly not the "what the hell?" factor. Some judge certification programs are aware of this and are trying to develop standards for judging art quilts and the like. As if you could "judge" art: 9.0 out of 10 for composition; 8.5 for use of color; 7.2 for thematic interpretation. Good luck with that one ... I've heard this sort of complaint many times before and no doubt will hear it well into the future. The quilt show is not the "art world"--- not that there aren't equally bizarre and distressing goings on in the "art world" or so I am told...

2.) I am not nearly as enthralled by "What the Hell?" as many others seem to be. Different for the sake of being different has no higher intrinsic value to me than the race to see how many Swarovski crystals you can hot glue on per square centimeter. N[ew art ... is frequently misunderstood, underestimated, ignored, disparaged ... even condemned] and a lot is also eventually deemed to be tripe. Only time will sort it out, if it ever gets sorted out. Looking for contemporary validation of the avant garde seems an oxymoron and a waste of energy that could be better used elsewhere.


Dolores Miller

Katie Stein Sather said...

oh, I am so puzzled by what judges look for!! I appreciate this column. thank you.

Annabel said...

OK here's one for you. If you are an artist and seek to use the medium as a method of self expression, or artistic endeavour - something other than a perfectly stitched quilt - why would you enter a quilt show? The money? Surely coming first in a system that judges quilts is lucrative, but as a measure of artistic worth, valueless?

Sandra Wyman said...

A really thought-provoking post once again. The question I am currently asking myself is whether there is any point, if you are an art quilter, in presenting yourself in quilt shows, where work is judged primarily on the basis of craft skills, for an audience the majority of whom have a great appreciation of craft skills but are not necessarily interested in art quilts. We can't really expect to have our cake and eat it. If we enter quilt shows we are judged according to laid-down principles of traditional craftsmanship and that is what we have to expect. If we consider ourselves as serious artists then we have to be prepared to brave the art world, to seek exhibition opportunities either individually or as a member of an exhibiting group - and be prepared to accept criticism and where it happens rejection on that basis. Textile art will never be valued as art until we are prepared to do this. I have after many years of moaning decided to do this, on the basis that if I were to go on eating apples I can't complain if they dont taste like bananas!

Turtlemoonimpressions said...

I was recently in a juried fiber art exhibit in a small, established and respected fine art museum that also shows textile art from time to time. So, I assumed the works would be judged on the basis of "art." So I was surprised and disappointed to hear that the jurer's first place award went to (in their own words) one that actually had perfectly squared corners." It was a very nice piece and it was exceptionally well crafted (which I have a lot of respect for); but it did not have the artistic flair or courageousness of some of the others. I have no sour grapes here. It was my first juried exhibit - I expected nothing. But I do think textile art still carries with it, the age old bias of "the crafts" in "the art world."

Nina Marie said...

This cracked me up since its all true! I think this post just goes to show us that as artists we need to making art that is true to our voice and what we want to communicate - not what we think will be accepted into the next big show.

That said - I think Susan Lenz has my What the Hell nomination. Susan will use anything to make textile art and it all is interesting!

I find it funny that Dorothy started with a what the hell moment and now she's brought hand stitching back into vogue. How cool is that? said...

Fantastic. I agree totally with you. Thanks, Maggie

Susan Lenz said...

To have my name appear as a nomination for "What the Hell?" in a comment on Elizabeth Barton's blog, a place where Annabel Rainbow already weighed in and a place wher4e Kathy Nida's name was suggested ... well ... WOW! I'm almost speechless (something that rarely happens! LOL!) Good thing! Both to have my work so noted and to be speechless. I need to be quiet because I'm spending the day on a 12' ladder cascading a few miles of unraveled thread from floor to ceiling through over 100 baskets that yesterday I suspended on wires. Just the sort of work on my normal sort of day ... that and waiting for my graffiti artist to show up. Try that kind of collaboration. We keep opposite hours ... like ... I sleep at night; he doesn't. This is all in the name of opera ... La Boheme. Perfect.

Elizabeth Barton said...

didn't have a chance to check the blog for a few days and am thrilled with all the comments!! it's especially good to have differing views. I know what you al mean about traditional quilts and traditional quilt judges, but maybe it's time they did begin to accept art quilts as quilts too!! And I think it's good for traditional quilters to see that they can do other things with this medium - other than following published patterns, they may not like them, but - well - you know the name of the Award!!!

Leigh in Portland (we are not burning down) said...

A couple people have posted similar ideas, but I'll take a shot at it. Art goes in a gallery or similar. A quilt show is not where fiber art belongs. The artist may have started as a quilter, but has ended up as an artist expressing ideas that happen to be in fiber.

At the risk of sounding really snobby, the people who go to quilt shows mostly aren't art people. They have no background or interest in appreciating art. The go see a few paintings in a museum on vacation, and they buy Thomas Kinkade prints because they match the sofa. They want pretty. They don't want to be made to think or feel uncomfortable. Judges jury in the pieces that will make their shows monetarily successful. Occasionally they throw in something to get everyone to argue (good publicity).

Someday I hope to go to some of the really big quilt shows, so I'm basing my experience on the more local ones, and guild member responses to the more arty things. Also, I just don't see a lot of originality that isn't driven by the 'technique of the moment', or geared toward sales of a new round of must-have notions/supplies/classes/kits, or a new magazine article/book. I know that monetizing everything pays the bills, but it sucks the soul out of the art.

Elizabeth Barton said...

you are so right, Leigh - monetizing "sucks the soul" out of so many things - look at tv for example!!