Occasionally I dip my toe into academic publications. My latest foray is “Fray: Art + Textile Politics,” which The New York Times chose as one of the ten best 2017 books about art. I saw the word textile in the title and put in a library request for it. I won’t review the book, which “explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.” That’s too much academic talk for me, but it’s not surprising as the author, Julia Bryan-Wilson, is a Professor in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley.
The publisher’s summary is at the end of this post, in case you want to find out more about the author’s thesis. You’re on your own if you choose to read the details of her arguments. With the exception of her discussion of Chile’s arpilleras, it was beyond me.
Instead, I want to concentrate on some points the author makes about the acceptance of textiles in art and what kind of bridge exists between craft and contemporary art. The former issue exercises me on occasion, especially when I see almost no mention of fiber art in art related news media such as Art Daily. In a year I’ve noted two such mentions – a Sheila Hicks exhibit and a piece by Robert Rauschenberg made of silk panels, though there’s been plenty of coverage for various installations and performance art.
So, why the blind eye to textiles? I want to quote from “Fray” and add my comments.
In recent decades, textiles have provided a unique challenge to these divisions [fine art, non-fine art] as more self-trained crafters are absorbed into the art market…the institutionalization of the Gee’s Bend quilts, which are now displayed in art museums alongside abstract painting and sculpture, is the most striking exception to the still generally intractable separation of objects not originally created for museums from the self-appointed realm of contemporary art (p. 6)
Bryan-Wilson talks about craftivism, which started in the early 2000’s as a leftist, antinationalist, or innovative handmaking movement to buy handmade items and boycott the mass produced products of big box stores.
…this is one of the most paradoxical aspects of craftivism – just as in [William] Morris’s day, when his fabrics became upholstery for the wealthy – which is to say that so much of the purported handmade revolution is really about individualized niche shopping, a way to guarantee the value and originality of a bespoke purchase. (p. 27)
Bryan-Wilson talks about the special relationship that handmaking has to ‘slow time’ as it “helps practitioners more fully inhabit, and decelerate, the present moment. ” (p. 261-262) I’ve seen many blog posts about slow stitching and I’m sure you have, too.
There’s a paradox in the business of selling time consuming “slow time” crafts on platforms such as Etsy. It’s hard to make a living wage given the time and material demands of such crafts. (p. 263) This thought echoes recent blog posts about Etsy’s way of doing business, which is now undergoing even more changes to raise its stock price.
Textiles are unique among art forms in that they move between high and low, between functional and artistic, but they
continue to be underrepresented within contemporary art history. These legions of hobby quilters, sewers, and weavers are in some measure responsible for the current academic and art-world interest in textiles, but … their actual work is often considered too mundane, uninteresting, generic … to itself cross the threshold of institutional visibility. (p. 33)
Bryan-Wilson talks about how different spheres of textiles – hobbyists, self-identified artists – are often in contact and inform each other.
…widespread interest in craft among everyday or amateur makers helps impel art – critical and art-institutional attention. Just as fine-art photography as a genre evolves under constant pressure exerted by the collective expertise of snapshot photographers, textiles as a field draws strength from a wide pool of self-trained makers who not only make up much of the audience for museum exhibits but also contribute to robust discourse around these techniques. (p. 273)
The surge of interest in crafts since the early 2000s has led to exhibits of some fiber artists like Sheila Hicks. While such shows might be a step in the right direction, many have tended to be highly formalist in nature, erasing the highly contentious…context in which many of these textile-based techniques first made their appearance within contemporary art. (p. 273)
I wish I could tell you Bryan-Wilson has some solutions in mind, but I found none in my admittedly hit and miss perusal of her book.
In closing I’ll suggest you read Barbara Brackman’s blog about quilts in an economic context. Her inaugural post talks about the romantic and nostalgic concepts about quilting planted by writers such as Ruby McKim, Nancy Cabot, Marie Webster, and Ruth Finley.
Brackman says: “Every one of those authors painted a false picture of the past by ignoring the economic and commercial aspects of women’s needlework at which she herself was succeeding admirably.” I’m looking forward to Barbara’s rants.
From the publisher:
In 1974, women in a feminist consciousness-raising group in Eugene, Oregon, formed a mock organization called the Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society. Emblazoning its logo onto t-shirts, the group wryly envisioned female collective textile making as a practice that could upend conventions, threaten state structures, and wreak political havoc. Elaborating on this example as a prehistory to the more recent phenomenon of “craftivism”—the politics and social practices associated with handmaking—Fray explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.
Closely examining how amateurs and fine artists in the United States and Chile turned to sewing, braiding, knotting, and quilting amid the rise of global manufacturing, Julia Bryan-Wilson argues that textiles unravel the high/low divide and urges us to think flexibly about what the politics of textiles might be. Her case studies from the 1970s through the 1990s—including the improvised costumes of the theater troupe the Cockettes, the braided rag rugs of US artist Harmony Hammond, the thread-based sculptures of Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, the small hand-sewn tapestries depicting Pinochet’s torture, and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt—are often taken as evidence of the inherently progressive nature of handcrafted textiles. Fray, however, shows that such methods are recruited to often ambivalent ends, leaving textiles very much “in the fray” of debates about feminized labor, protest cultures, and queer identities; the malleability of cloth and fiber means that textiles can be activated, or stretched, in many ideological directions.
The first contemporary art history book to discuss both fine art and amateur registers of handmaking at such an expansive scale, Fray unveils crucial insights into how textiles inhabit the broad space between artistic and political poles—high and low, untrained and highly skilled, conformist and disobedient, craft and art.