The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Raining On My Quilt Parade (Is a Good Thing, Darn It)
Have you ever heard that phrase, “An education is a dangerous thing?” That’s a rough version of it, but you know the phrase I’m talking about. I was reminded of it the other day — I’ll tell you why in a second — and decided to look it up.
It turns out it was 18th century poet and translator Alexander Pope who coined the phrase, and the phrase is actually part of a poem. It goes like this:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”
You don’t find that kind of stuff on Facebook posts. And I’m glad I looked it up because I
was feeling super uncomfortable in the middle of some quilt history research, and I needed to be reminded that if you’re learning a lot, you’re going to be uncomfortable. And that’s
a good thing.
Do I feel quilts belong on the walls of museums? Yes — but these
days, I’m thinking over my answer. Image: Wikipedia.
In the research I was doing, some (okay, a lot) of the illusions I had about the timeline of quilting in America were being challenged, and I don’t like to be challenged. I like to be agreed with. I like all my knowledge to be confirmed, because it’s much easier that way. But the book I was reading wasn’t having that.
The book in question was Elissa Auther’s mighty String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. Auther’s book came out in 2010 and was recommended to me by my professor in the Fiber & Material Studies department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) where I am currently a graduate student of writing with an unofficial minor in fiber arts. I’m always excited to get reading recommendations from smart people about my favorite topic (quilts in America), so I ran out and got it and turned to the index to find all the pages on — wait for it — quilts in America.
You can’t put this part in a museum — and some would argue that is a really big problem.
Image: Wikipedia.There was a good deal to find, and all of it was disturbing. Auther’s book title says it all: she’s examining the ways the art world ranks or otherwise places importance on “craft” vs. “art.” Quilts have long had a seat at the table for this discussion, of course; “Are quilts art?” would be the most over-asked question in the world if it weren’t so hard to answer and fascinating to unpack.
On page 129, what Auther unpacks is the idea that when the art world embraced patchwork quilts as being extraordinary examples of graphic design (like at the Whitney Museum of Art’s landmark 1971 exhibit), they totally divorced them from their original purpose as bedcovers, as objects made of cloth and thread, sewn by hand and designed for a specific purpose.
The art people said as much themselves, writing exhibit labels and catalogs that explained how quilts shouldn’t be seen as “mere bedcovers” but as feats of graphic design. What a revelation! Quilts were like abstract paintings! Forget about the whole “quilt” thing! Forget the blanket part! Hang them on the wall! Quilts are art! Well, not all of them, but some quilts are art!
Auther’s point is that this was not good, even ruinous for the quilt as an art object. For art world people to equate quilts with abstract paintings, they had to remove so many of the qualities that made and still make quilts so different from paintings, and, Auther maintains, that’s a crime. By stripping the materiality* of the quilt as an object to make it function as a painting made it “good enough” to hang on a gallery wall next to work from Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg. But … What about the quilt-iness of the quilt? What about the bed? What about the home? How come we have to get rid of all that stuff to land a place in a museum, huh?
Is this 1913 street market in Oxford, Ohio, a better “gallery” for quilts than a fancy museum in New York City? Image: Wikipedia.
My heart sank because I knew this was a very, very good point. But for years, I’ve positively crowed in my lectures about the importance of the Whitney exhibit, how massive and fabulous it was that it happened, how Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof are two of my biggest quilt world heroes. Of course, I still love Jonathan and Gail (and I consider Jonathan a friend today), but now that I’ve got this counterpoint argument, I want to discuss it with everyone, including Jonathan. Does he have regrets about basically putting the “Art quilts art?” question on steroids? Does he think the materiality of quilts was lost — or at least irrevocably changed — with that famous quilt exhibit heard round the world?
The book by Ms. Auther.Book learnin’ is a dangerous thing, indeed. I didn’t
want to know that there’s a whole, huge argument to be made about how quilts were appropriated (bad!) by the art world, how they kind of gained the world but lost their soul, if you will. Ugh! It was way more fun when I hadn’t even considered that. I can’t go back, though; we can’t unlearn things.
The good news is that, because of moments like this, I am learning to get comfortable when I learn something that makes me uncomfortable. As I’ve said in previous columns (see: Column #50 on the Underground Railroad), when I have to correct my understanding of something, I grow. My familiarity with my favorite topic deepens. That’s what I want, isn’t it?
Learning is a little like skydiving: It’s dangerous. But the view is incredible.