Archive for May 26th, 2012

Reading – Elissa Auther: String Felt Thread

Auther, E. (2009) String Felt Thread: The hierarchy of art and craft in American art, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press

Point 1: I was way out of my depth for much of this book. I have no training in art history, and it would have been helpful to know about minimilist art, process art, post-minimilism, appropriation and installation art, and probably a whole lot more.

Point 2: I enjoyed reading this book very much. I learnt lots of things about stuff I was already interested in, and I learnt about lots of new things that now interest me. While reading I had debates with the author in my head, agreeing and disagreeing on points and maybe a few pages later changing my view and/or deepening my understanding. My copy of the book is like a porcupine with all the post-it notes sticking out.

With all of that, there’s no way I’ll be able to do justice to the book in writing about it. I’ll try to give my understanding of some of the points being made, then a few of my thoughts / questions / opinions (provisional, since I’m hoping they will evolve over time).

The book starts with an exhibition in New York in 1969 – Wall Hangings, organised by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen. It was ground-breaking, challenging the perception of weaving and the use of fibre as necessarily “craft” and impossible in “fine art”. It received one review in the national art press – negative. The work was decorative, engaging, not demanding. It was not art. It was less than art.

The book examines the distinction between art and craft, the history, the link to “women’s work”, the implications and changes in perception. It also examines the power and privilege involved in defining and policing “art”, and points out that art requires a not-art from which to distinguish itself.¬† The hierarchy of art above craft seems to begin in Western Art in the Renaissance, with fine arts (painting, music, poetry) valued more highly than mechanical arts (useful crafts like bricklaying and weaving). The materials used seem to be important, plus the utility or purpose, and perhaps whether it is agreeable or labour to produce it. At some point “decoration” became a negative and concept, inspiration and idea became all important.

On page xviii of the introduction there is a quote from art historian Terry Smith and the critical factors are:
Material – for art a vehicle, for craft “sacred”, a given.
Composition – for art an imposed purposeful arrangement of imagery, for craft surface effect.
Purpose – communicating something of significance versus production of a useful object.
For the recipient – cognitive and related to sight (optic), compared to the significance of touch (haptic) in a craft work.

String Felt Thread examines and questions all of this, focusing on the changing status of fibres and textiles in art in the 1960s, 70s and beyond, and looking at the experiences of artists (artisans?) using fibre in fibre art, process or postminimalist art, and feminist art. It also touches briefly on other movements or spheres in fibre art such as weavers and designers with connections to the textile industry and the designer-craftman model of the Bauhaus; a popular revival of craft in the US in the 1960s (think macram√©); the rise of the counterculture…

Sheila Hicks, Barbara Shawcroft, Lenore Tawney and Claire Zeisler are among those used to illustrate “fibre artists”. They used fibre as a material, often in large scale off-loom works, and disregarding connotations such as utility and domesticity. Their work at times existed in a a kind of limbo between art and craft – aspiring to one, perceived as the other. I’m missing out a lot of information and nuances, but I think Auther posits that in challenging the definitions of Art to include constructs using fibre, the fibre art movement actually accepted the validity of the Art hierarchy – they wanted to be included in it, but were met with frequent rejection by curators and critics and seen as acting in the realm of textiles and craft, not sculpture, painting and Art.

In contrast, there were established artists who began to use fibre in their work in the postminimilism movement. Robert Morris did extensive sculptural work made of industrial felt. His existing reputation as an artist and his published articles and essays concerning his work allowed the acceptance of that work as Art. The intellectual content shielded any negative connotations from textiles and fibre. A critical difference seems to be that Morris in his work might choose to address issues of femininity, whereas for many fibre artists their femininity was intrinsic. Eva Hesse was another artist who had sufficient credibility and connections to avoid the suggestion of craft in her work.

Artists in the feminist movement challenged the negative associations of craft. They recognised the connection of the art – craft hierarchy to the social hierarchies of gender and race. They identified with the history of fibre art, and the anonymous or amateur women who produced it. However there could be a divide between regard for the possibly idealised past and the attitude towards current non-artist female textile crafters, who didn’t necessarily appreciate the need to be rescued from any low status. Auther personalises and focuses her review by examining the works of individual feminist artists – Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Harmony Hammond and Judy Chicago. Regarding the latter’s work The Dinner Party Auther writes “… the work stands as an emblem of the feminist embrace of craft as the antithesis of elitist art and the problems associated with feminists’ appropriating the language and materials of women’s craft while insisting on their own status as noncraftspeople”. The distinction of art and craft was not the particular materials or techniques used, but whether they were used to express meaning, or the process was an end in itself.

In her conclusion Auther brings the book to present day practices and concerns. Fibre is now accepted as as material used in Art. The social and cultural meaning of textiles can also be included in artistic examination, although possibly in an ironic approach (in contrast to the Martha Stewart style use of craft).

Finally, I recommend you click here, to go to a post on the University of Minnesota Press blog which includes a short video of Auther talking about her work.

A fairly random selection of my thoughts:

I don’t agree that an object which is useful cannot be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities.

I think there’s an awful lot of painting between the Renaissance and the twentieth century that would generally be regarded as Art but was basically decorative, not about concepts. Also those working in fibres and textiles can explore a wide variety of materials (eg today I spent with heat gun, soldering iron and plastics (I think? tyvek and lutrador)). I don’t accept fibre work is more personally limiting in material terms than say those who prefer to stick with canvas and oil paint.

I value the technique and skill of traditional craftwork and feel strongly about the preservation of craft (see blog post here).

Considering the thought, decision-making and calculations involved in producing high quality woven work I don’t see it as non-intellectual or rote work.

The whole feminist slant on art <–> craft is tricky and only works with a narrow view on fibre crafts where women dominate in participant numbers. What about ceramics, or blacksmithing or … (the list goes on).

Drawing a line on a continuum can be bad / random / subjective enough, but art <–> craft is not a nice neat two dimensional line, but a complex, multi-dimensional space.

Boundaries are about exclusion and inclusion, about access and resources and acknowledgement and value and saleability. My preference is not to move them (the boundaries) but to … I don’t know, not rise above them but make them irrelevant. The same with hierarchies although I guess in honesty I do see a hierarchy because I prefer conscious, thinking, serious (in the sense of being serious about it, not that it can’t be funny or lighthearted), honest work.

I’d like to make conscious, thinking, serious, personal, honest work. I’d like it to communicate, be meaningful, be beautiful¬† – though not necessarily all those things all the time. I couldn’t honestly say if Art or Craft would be more important.


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